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The CIA and the JFK Assassination

CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia
CIA Headquarters in Langley,

"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - enshrined on the lobby floor of the entrance to CIA headquarters.

"It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government." - CIA CounterIntelligence head James Angleton, in testimony to the Church Committee.

The three letters C.I.A. recur over and over again in the Kennedy assassination saga, with many unanswered questions. Were the CIA-Mafia plots to kill Fidel Castro somehow related to JFK's murder? Did the CIA conduct a cover-up after the assassination, including hiding a relationship with alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald? Was Oswald in fact an agent of the CIA? Why did the CIA bury some of its knowledge of Oswald's trip to Mexico? What have we learned from the voluminous CIA declassifications of the 1990s? Was the CIA involved in the Kennedy assassination?

President Kennedy, the CIA, and Cuba

President Kennedy entered office as an advocate of a stronger line against Fidel Castro's Cuba, and was a fan of the kind of counterinsurgent warfare employed by the CIA. This changed with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, inherited from the Eisenhower administration. Kennedy accepted responsibility publicly, but privately blamed the CIA and obtained the resignation of longtime Director Allen Dulles and others. He also implemented NSAM 55, transferring control of paramilitary operations to the Defense Dept.

Cuban Premier Fidel Castro with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev
Cuban Premier Fidel Castro
with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev

For their part, many CIA officers and Cuban exiles blamed Kennedy for failing to support the operation, in particular canceling a planned second set of airstrikes. Bitterness continued as Robert Kennedy took control of Cuban operations, haranguing the CIA to "do something" about Castro. Meanwhile, many CIA and Pentagon officers viewed the subsequent sabotage program, Operation Mongoose, as insufficient to overthrow the ever-stronger Castro.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is remembered today as a Kennedy success story, and indeed Kennedy's steady hand during the crisis may very well have prevented World War III. But many insiders at that time viewed the Kennedy blockade as yet another sign of weakness and failure of nerve. Senator Richard Russell, when informed of the situation, was among those who advocated immediate military action to remove the missiles, telling Kennedy: "It seems to me that we are at a crossroads. We're either a first-class power or we're not.....And I think that we should assemble as speedily as possible an adequate force and clean out that situation." CIA officer William Harvey sent commando teams into Cuba during the crisis, which earned him the emnity of the Kennedys and eventual exile in Rome.

During 1963, plans for the overthrow of Castro continued, while the Kennedy administration simultaneously began pursuing a "second track" of accomodation. Tensions even within the government were so high on Cuba that this "peace track" was undertaken behind the back of the State Department, CIA, and Pentagon. One of the intermediaries, a journalist and emissary named Jean Daniel was meeting with Castro when news of JFK's assassination came.

Castro Assassination Plots

On the same day, November 22 1963, a CIA officer was handing an assassination instrument to Rolando Cubela, code-named AMLASH, in the latest of CIA attempts to murder Fidel Castro. The case officer's superior, Special Affairs Staff Desmond Fitzgerald, had personally met with Cubela earlier, and presented himself as a personal representative of Robert Kennedy. Both Fitzgerald and his boss Richard Helms later testified that RFK had not been informed.

Rolando Cubela with Fidel Castro in 1959.
Rolando Cubela with Fidel Castro
in 1959.

Were the Kennedy brothers trying to kill Castro at the same time they were trying to reach an accomodation with him? Pursuing such multiple tracks would not be out of character for JFK, and the circumstantial evidence is fairly strong that he and his brother authorized at least some of the plots to kill Castro. But direct evidence of Presidential authorization has never been forthcoming. This may very well be the result of the desire to maintain "plausible denial," but it is also true that the informal stories that "the Kennedys knew" tend to come from their political enemies, making final judgments difficult. The CIA had its own agenda, as well; when Robert Kennedy was told in 1962 of plots to kill Castro involving organized crime, for instance, he was falsely told that these plots had been terminated.

Some of the figures involved in these CIA-Mafia plots - Johnny Roselli, Santo Trafficante, Sam Giancana, Bill Harvey - have long been "persons of interest" in the Kennedy assassination. Roselli and Giancana were both murdered during the Church Committee's investigation. The coalition involved in these plots - mob figures beset by RFK's war on organized crime, Cuban exiles frustrated with Kennedy's inaction on Cuba, and CIA officers similarly dismayed by perceived Kennedy weakness - had both the motive and the means to turn on JFK. Whether they did so remains in dispute.

The CIA and the Warren Commission

In the aftermath of the JFK assassination, a senior officer named John Whitten was put in charge of collecting investigative data on Oswald and the assassination. Within weeks he was replaced and James Angleton's CounterIntelligence division was put in charge. Angleton's group had opened a file on defector Lee Henry [sic] Oswald in 1960 and had opened his mail under its HTLINGUAL program run by Birch D. O'Neal. With CounterIntelligence officer Ray Rocca as the main contact point, the CIA supplied the Warren Commission with information about Oswald and his wife Marina, their contacts in the Soviet Union, Oswald's trip to Mexico City, and more.

The Church Committee in the 1970s analyzed the CIA's role in supporting the Warren Commission, and found it lacking. The Committee "developed evidence which impeaches the process by which the intelligence agencies [CIA and FBI] arrived at their own conclusions about the assassination, and by which they provided information to the Warren Commission."

Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko.
Soviet defector
Yuri Nosenko.

While the most notable omission was the failure of CIA officials to notify the Warren Commission about CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, CIA withholding was not limited to that issue. For instance, a March 1964 memo notes that "Jim [Angleton] would prefer to wait out the Commission" on documents passed to the Secret Service just after the assassination, including photos of the so-called "Mexico Mystery Man." As will be seen, the Mexico City episode is replete with circumstantial evidence of a major CIA cover-up.

Angleton was also responsible for the incarceration of Yuri Nosenko, a Soviet defector who arrived in the U.S. with the seemingly unwelcome news that the KGB had had no interest in Oswald during his tenure in the Soviet Union. Angleton and other CounterIntelligence officers were convinced that Nosenko was a false defector sent by the KGB on a mission. Nosenko was locked in a small room and interrogated for more than three years, while a battle raged within the CIA over his bona fides. Because this issue was unresolved during the Warren Commission's tenure, the Commission received reports about him but did not use his information in its publications.

A prominent Warren Commissioner was former CIA Director Allen Dulles, who Kennedy had let go after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Dulles maintained some contact with the Agency during the Commission's tenure, including coaching it on what questions the Commission might ask; one internal memo summarizing such a contact included this: "I agreed with him [Dulles] that a carefully phrased denial of the charges of involvement with Oswald seemed most appropriate."

The CIA and the Garrison Probe

The ill-fated investigation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison into the Kennedy assassination was not running for long before it started to pull CIA assets into its sights. An internal CIA memo from September 1967 lists those claimed by Garrison to have Agency ties: Clay Shaw, Lawrence LaBorde, Emilio Santana, Victor Manuel Paneque, Alberto Fernandez Hechavarria, Carlos Bringuier, Gerald Patrick Hemming, Jack Rogers, William Dalzell, Schlumberger Corp., Donald Norton, and Gordon Novel. Only in the latter two cases did the CIA claim absolutely no relationship; others were at least contacts or in some cases more (Carlos Bringuier's DRE anti-Castro organization was "conceived, created, and funded by the CIA").

New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw.
New Orleans
businessman Clay Shaw.

Clay Shaw, the man Garrison charged with conspiracy in the JFK murder, testified under oath "No, I have not" to the question "Mr. Shaw, have you ever worked for the Central Intelligence Agency?" The truth of this answer may depend on the meaning of the word "work." It was later revealed that Shaw had been an informant to the CIA's Domestic Contacts Service during the period 1948 to 1956. More interestingly, a document surfaced which seemed to imply that Shaw was cleared for "Project QK/ENCHANT." Other persons cleared for this project include J. Munroe Sullivan, Shaw's "alibi," Peter Maheu (son of Robert), and no less than CIA officer E. Howard Hunt. The nature of this project is still classified; what little information there is suggests that those cleared for the project may possibly have been "unwitting," and that it may have been related to gathering information from businessmen. Certainly there is no indication it was assassination-related. Author Bill Davy (Let Justice Be Done) also uncovered a CIA memo which appears to confirm Shaw's use of the alias "Clay Bertrand," which was central to the trial.

Whether Shaw had any deeper relationship with the Agency, perhaps related to the International Trade Mart he was Director of, remains unsubstantiated though disputed. Certainly the CIA was worried about his prosecution - CIA Director Helms' assistant Victor Marchetti revealed in the 1975 that Helms held meetings where he would ask "are we giving them all the help we can?" CounterIntelligence officer Ray Rocca held meetings on 20 Sep 1967 and 26 Sep 1967, and incorrectly predicted that "Garrison would indeed obtain a conviction of Shaw" (Shaw was acquitted after an hour of deliberation). The Agency also produced a series of 9 numbered memos tracking the Garrison investigation (see sidebar), and circulated to station chiefs a guidebook for defending the Warren Report, with specific strategies for refuting the critics.

Beyond the monitoring of Garrison, there have long been allegations that CIA agents infiltrated the DA's staff, which certainly produced its share of defectors and leakers. Many stories swirled around William Martin (who had been a former CIA contact), William Wood aka "Bill Boxley" (also former CIA, though known as such by Garrison), and anti-Castro exiles Bernardo de Torres and Alberto Fowler. The truth of the level of infiltration of Garrison's staff remains murky. The real attack on Garrison came from the mainstream media, including an NBC reporter who had formerly worked for the CIA, NSA, and Robert Kennedy - Walter Sheridan. The Justice Dept. also played a role, including taking the step of flying JFK autopsy doctor Boswell to New Orleans during the trial to be ready to rescue his floundering colleague, Dr. Finck.

The Last Investigation

The post-Watergate Church Committee documented CIA plots to kill Fidel Castro in great detail; its probe into the Kennedy assassination was more limited, as seen in the name of the slim volume "The Investigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Performance of the Intelligence Agencies." But this report was highly critical of both the CIA and FBI; Senator Schweiker told a TV audience that "the [Warren] report...has collapsed like a house of cards" and spoke of "senior intelligence officials who directed the cover-up."

The Church Committee's unfinished business fell to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which got off to a rocky start. Shortly after Chief Counsel Richard Sprague declined to sign CIA secrecy oaths and began asking pointed questions about Oswald's visit to Mexico City, he began to be denounced in the press and even by his own committee chairman, Henry Gonzalez. The committee was almost terminated before it really got started, rescued only by the dual resignations of Gonzalez and Sprague, and the untimely apparent suicide of key witness George DeMohrenschildt on the eve of a refunding vote.

HSCA Chief Counsel G. Robert Blakey.
HSCA Chief Counsel
G. Robert Blakey.

Justice Department organized crime expert G. Robert Blakey replaced Sprague, worked out secrecy agreements with the CIA, and the Committee was re-launched. The CIA was never really a suspect of the new HSCA investigation, though the Committee gained access to a huge number of CIA files and questioned many Agency officers in great detail. Of particular interest was the issue of Oswald's sojourn to Mexico City. This episode, glossed over by the Warren Commission, posed grave questions: did the FBI err when it determined that recorded phone calls of a person calling himself Oswald, talking to foreign embassies, did not match his voice? Was the CIA lying when it reported that such tapes no longer existed? Why did CIA cables reporting the visit contain obvious falsehoods? Was the CIA hiding pre-assassination knowledge that Oswald had been to the Cuban embassy, and if so why? Was Oswald in league with a KGB assassinations expert, or was this connection planted as part of the Kennedy assassination plot? Was the Oswald visit part of an approved CIA operation?

These questions have not been adequately answered to this day. HSCA staffers compiled a report entitled "Oswald, the CIA, and Mexico City" (aka the "Lopez Report" after one of its co-authors) which addresses some of them, and takes issue with CIA's positions in many instances. This report was not released by the HSCA, but was declassified in the mid-1990s, with many redactions. The Committee's investigation generated a great deal of hostility with the CIA; one memo from Chairman Stokes to CIA Director Turner essentially accused the Agency of lying about the existence photographs of Oswald taken in Mexico City.

The HSCA concluded in its Final Report that "The Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency were not involved in the assassination of President Kennedy." But even the write-up supporting that conclusion noted the Committee's difficulty in determining whether Oswald had been an agent of the CIA, unexplained anomalies related to CIA's file on Oswald, the allegation of an officer that he had personally seen a report from a CIA field office which had "interviewed a former Marine who had worked at the Minsk radio plant following his defection to the U.S.S.R.," among other allegations and issues.

The relationship between the CIA and the HSCA, particularly some of its staff, was often tense. Neatly summarizing some CIA officers' frustrations with what they thought were inexperienced and overzealous investigators was one internal memo reviewing an HSCA writeup. CIA officer Chuck Berk wrote the following, regarding the allegation that the CIA withheld information from the Warren Commission: "For instance, if we had reports on why the monkeys lost their tails in Zamboango, it would not be provided as it had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination (although HSCA investigators might think it so)." [For readers for whom this reference might be too obscure, here is a link to the traditional song entitled Zamboango.]

HSCA Chief Counsel often sided with the CIA in such disputes, and now regrets it. Two decades after the Committee closed up shop, Washington Post journalist Jefferson Morley discovered that the CIA liaison officer to the Committee was not what he appeared. George Joannides, brought out of retirement to help guide HSCA staffers in their document requests, had been from 1962-64 the case officer for the DRE, the very Cuban exile group which with which Oswald had had multiple interactions in the summer of 1963. Thus, a person knowledgeable of one of the most sensitive areas of intersection between the CIA and Oswald was in a position to monitor and manage the HSCA's investigation in this area, Told of this, Blakey said that if he had known he would have had Joannides on the witness stand rather than as liaison, and wrote a tirade against the CIA, which said this of the Agency: "Many have told me that the culture of the Agency is one of prevarication and dissimulation and that you cannot trust it or its people. Period. End of story. I am now in that camp." Significantly for the HSCA's findings, he also wrote: "I now no longer believe anything the Agency told the committee any further than I can obtain substantial corroboration for it from outside the Agency for its veracity."

Was Oswald a CIA Agent?

Dallas arrest photo of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Dallas arrest photo of
Lee Harvey Oswald.

Was, then, Lee Harvey Oswald a CIA agent? No documentation to that effect has ever emerged, though the HSCA was duly wary of certainty based on that alone, particularly in the face of a memo from the head of the CIA's "executive action" unit which talked of "forged and backdated" files to "backstop" the record on such activities. The Committee also heard from a former CIA accountant, James Wilcott, who said that he had paid out money to an "Oswald project," but the HSCA could not corroborate his account and disbelieved it.

Oswald's defection to the USSR has long attracted interest; he and many others defected precisely at a time when US knowledge of the Soviet Union was lacking (prior to satellites), and many observers have long suspected that he was part of a "false defector" program. This suspicion was fueled by the U.S. Government's curious treatment of the man who declared he would give radar secrets to the Soviets - the government loaned him money to return to the U.S., never prosecuted him, and claimed never to have even debriefed him.

While no official acknowledgement of such a false-defector program has been forthcoming, the CIA did admit privately to HSCA staff that at least one officer named Thomas Casasin had "run an agent into the USSR" and like Oswald this agent had come back with a Russian wife. Interestingly, Casasin had written a memo on 25 Nov 1963 that he and another officer in the Soviet Russia division had on Oswald's return discussed the "laying on of interview(s)," but "I do not know what action developed thereafter." For its part, the HSCA failed to mention Casasin's having "run an agent into the USSR" in its published defector study.

Oswald's odd behavior in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 is also a source of speculation about his motives and associations. His pro-Castro activities, including pretending to be the head of the New Orleans chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee--Oswald was its only member in the city--seem bizarre, except perhaps when looked through the lens of the CIA's ongoing anti-FPCC intelligence operations. Jim Garrison discovered that an address stamped on one of Oswald's handbills, 544 Camp Street, was the address of a building holding the offices anti-Communist operative Guy Banister. Banister's secretary Delphine Roberts told investigator Anthony Summers that Banister had told them that Oswald was "associated with the office," and Garrison's staff was told by Banister's widow that she had discovered FPCC leaflets among her husband's possessions. Garage owner Adrian Alba testified that, among other activities, he had seen an FBI agent in a car passing an envelope to Oswald. And as noted earlier, at a time when Oswald got engaged in a street scuffle with DRE delegate Carlos Bringuier, the DRE's case officer was George Joannides, the officer who would later be brought out of retirement to serve as liaison to the HSCA.

Returning to the CIA files on Oswald, the HSCA was concerned about Oswald's "201" file, which was opened in November 1960 but contained materials dated from prior to that time, suggesting that there may have been a prior file on Oswald. Ann Egerter, who opened the 201 file on Lee "Henry" [sic] Oswald on the basis of a State Dept. about several defectors, denied that the handwritten annotation "AG" meant "agent." But her CI/SIG unit in CounterIntelligence was primarly tasked to protect the Agency from penetrations or moles: "We were charged with the investigation of Agency personnel who were suspected one way or another." She also noted that "Operational material is not stored in 201 files."

Ray Rocca, a CounterIntelligence officer who had been a liaison to the Warren Commission, was questioned by the HSCA about why the CI/SIG group would have been the one to open the Oswald file. After a seemingly evasive exchange in which Rocca brought in the DDP (operations) branch of the CIA, the HSCA questioner responded "Again, though, Oswald had nothing to do with the DDP at this time, at least apparently." To which Rocca responded: "I'm not saying that. You said it."

After all these years, it remains unclear whether Oswald was an agent of the CIA or of any other intelligence agency. An entire book, Philip Melanson's Spy Saga, was devoted to the circumstantial evidence that he was. Alternative theories include that Oswald was operating with people like Banister outside the CIA per se, or that perhaps he was manipulated without being witting of exactly who he was dealing with. Author Peter Dale Scott has even argued that Oswald's file, more than the man himself, was the subject of an intelligence operation, specifically CounterIntelligence chief James Angleton's famous search for a Soviet mole. Some dismiss all this, saying that Oswald was simply a loner and malcontent. If this were true, then Oswald's strange capers effectively would make him an agent of his own one-man intelligence agency, a theory no less strange than any of the others.

Friends and Agents

If despite the anomalies Oswald was not connected to U.S. intelligence, the same cannot be said for many of his associates. For some of them, persistent allegations of such connections remain unsubstantiated. For others, declassified files prove connections to varying degrees, though the ultimate meaning of those connections is subject to debate.

Oswald's "best friend" in Dallas was a curious and well-connected oil geologist named George DeMohrenschildt. Long suspected of early ties to French intelligence, or perhaps German intelligence, DeMohrenschildt himself admitted an association with the CIA's Dallas office head, J. Walton Moore. As a businessman, of course, such association might be routine, except that DeMohrenschildt further said that he had talked about Oswald with Moore; DeMohrenschildt also apparently encouraged Oswald to write a report about his experiences in Minsk which in some parts reads like an intelligence report.

George DeMohrenschildt.

Declassified files show that in 1976 DeMohrenschildt wrote to then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush, pleading that he (DeMohrenschildt) was being followed and his phone bugged, admitting he had been a "damn fool" for beginning to talk and write about Oswald. Bush's staff almost dismissed the handwritten letter as a crank, but Bush confirmed to them that he knew DeMohrenschildt, had roomed with the latter's nephew at Andover. Bush wrote back a letter, declining assistance and saying in effect "have a nice life." This was not to be. Six months later, on the day an HSCA investigator named Gaeton Fonzi tried to reach him, DeMohrenschildt apparently took his own life with a shotgun. This event so shocked the Congress that it renewed funding for the Committee, which had been in danger of being terminated due to the Sprague-Gonzalez scandal.

Some others in Oswald's orbit had clearer Agency connections. Journalist Priscilla Johnson, who interviewed Oswald during his defection in Moscow and later befriended Marina, had in the 1950s attempted to join the CIA. Though this never happened, she maintained multiple contacts with Agency officers and was cleared for various information-gathering projects. Johnson attracted interest of assassination researchers not only because of her book Marina and Lee, which reinforced the Warren Commission view of Oswald just as the HSCA was gearing up, but also due to curious events such as her participating in the finding of a bus ticket "proving" that Oswald had been to Mexico. Senator Russell for one was highly skeptical that the federal agencies had missed finding this ticket among Marina's possessions during multiple searches.

Priscilla Johnson was hardly alone among journalists in having CIA contacts. Dallas Morning news reporter Hugh Aynesworth, another longtime commentator on the case, was in contact with the Dallas CIA office. A declassified memo described a working relationship with multiple Miami Herald journalists. As Congress discovered in the 1970s during investigation of intelligence abuses, the Agency had developed many intimate contacts with the media. The contacts with Johnson and Aynesworth and others is not sinister per se, but it does raise the legitimate question of bias.

One other close associate of Lee and Marina Oswald was Ruth Paine, a Quaker housewife who befriended Marina and gave her a place to live when she and Lee were separated, who got Oswald the job at the Book Depository, and in whose house much of the incriminating evidence was found. Ruth's sister, it turns out, worked for the CIA under Air Force cover. Was Ruth a "babysitter" for Marina, as some suspect? In 1968, Marina told the Orleans Parish Grand Jury why she had cut off contact with Ruth after the assassination: "I was advised by Secret Service not to be connected with her, seems like she was…..not connected…..she was sympathizing with the CIA. She wrote letters over there and they told me for my own reputation, to stay away."

Perhaps it is not surprising that a returning defector would find himself surrounded by people with contacts in the intelligence world. But it should give pause before giving full credence to the oft-told stories of the "loner" Oswald, stories often told by these same sources.

Confessions of Involvement

"Someone would have talked," goes the old refrain. In the case of some CIA officers and others associated with the Agency, they did talk. But who's listening?

Infamous CIA officer E. Howard Hunt
Infamous CIA officer
E. Howard Hunt

In 2007, legendary Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt died, leaving behind a taped "confession" in which he claimed knowledge of the plot to kill Kennedy but not active participation, describing himself as a "benchwarmer." Hunt named names - including Lyndon Johnson, Tracy Barnes, William Harvey, Frank Sturgis, and others - but provided no substantiating details. For many observers, the hard-to-credit confession was a "last laugh" and a parting gift to his ne-er-do-well son, who has attempted to capitalize on it.

Other confessions have carried a bit more weight. David Morales, Chief of Operations at the JMWAVE station in Florida where he trained Bay of Pigs participants and by some accounts was involved in assassination operations, was getting drunk one night with childhood friend Ruben Carbajal and a business associate named Bob Walton. Both men said that Morales went on a tirade about Kennedy and particularly his failure to support the men of the Bay of Pigs. Morales finished this conversation by saying "Well, we took care of that son of a bitch, didn't we?"

John Martino was not a CIA officer or agent, but did travel in circles which intersected with many of the Agency's anti-Castro activists, including Morales and soldier-of-fortune and later Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis. Martino told family and associates that he had been involved in the assassination in a peripheral way, and that "The anti-Castro people put Oswald together. Oswald didn't know who he was working for--he was just ignorant of who was really putting him together. Oswald was to meet his contact at the Texas Theatre. They were to meet Oswald in the theatre, and get him out of the country, then eliminate him. Oswald made a mistake...There was no way we could get to him. They had Ruby kill him."

CIA Records on the JFK Assassination

The FBI was the primary investigative body in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, and continued that work on behalf of the Warren Commission. But the CIA became involved as well, particularly in foreign aspects - Oswald's defection to the Soviet Union and his contacts with Soviet and Cuban embassies several weeks prior to the events of Dallas. During the later Church and HSCA investigations, the Agency's anti-Castro murder plots and other operations became a prime focus.

CIA files in the JFK Collection held at the National Archives number on the order of a half-million pages, and the vast bulk of them are online on the MFF website (although in some cases the National Archives' copy has been re-released with fewer redactions). The records fall into several sub-collections:

  • Oswald 201 file - A small pre-assassination file, which then became the CIA's primary post-assassination investigative file.   • Segregated Collection - Split into two portions, one stored on paper and the other microfilmed, these are the files made available to the HSCA. They contain a great deal on anti-Castro personalities and groups.   • Russ Holmes Work File - This JFK assassination document archive was maintained in the CounterIntelligence division by an officer named Russell Holmes.

Other smaller collections include the Latin America Division Work File (the group was charged in the 1970s with looking into Castro's involvement in the crime), and files from the Office of Security, the Deputy Director of Plans, and other miscellaneous files.

Important CIA reports of interest to a wide audience are the Inspector General's 1967 Report on CIA plots to kill Castro, volumes one and two of an Inspector General's report on the Bay of Pigs, and the recently-released "family jewels" report compiled during the Watergate era.

More may be forthcoming. The CIA is currently in a legal battle over the records of officer George Joannides, and has admitted to the existence of 1100 assassination documents withheld in full. The completeness of existing collections remains in doubt in some instances, and falsification of certain records has been alleged by researchers who study them. Nonetheless, the declassifications of the 1990s delivered a wealth of information; much of the preceding discussion is only possible due to records released since 1993.

Was the CIA Involved in the JFK Assassination?

President Kennedy pinning a medal on outgoing CIA Director Allen Dulles.
President Kennedy pinning a medal
on outgoing CIA Director Allen Dulles.

But what about the big question - was the CIA involved in the Kennedy assassination? Certainly there were those in the Agency - particularly among those involved in the Bay of Pigs and other anti-Castro operations - who came to hate President Kennedy over lack of action to remove Castro. This intensified in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the spring 1963 crackdown on exile groups operating against Cuban targets (and Soviet ships) from U.S. soil. When the Castro assassination plots were revealed in the 1970s, means was added to motive, and this led many to suspect that the CIA, or at least some officers and agents of it, were involved in Kennedy's death.

But is there any direct evidence of such involvement, beyond the meager confessions noted earlier and the discredited allegation that Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis were two of the three "tramps" found in a boxcar not far from Dealey Plaza?

The evidence is circumstantial, but not absent. First of all, there is no serious question that the CIA has been involved in cover-up of its pre-assassination knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald. In particular, the official story of the Oswald visit to Mexico City is fraught with problems. Overwhelming evidence exists that at least one tape of a person calling himself Oswald, contacting the Soviet Embassy, were available on November 22, and not "routinely recycled" as CIA officials later claimed. More importantly, FBI agents in Dallas who listened to recordings determined that it wasn't Oswald's voice on the tape.

CIA propaganda expert David Phillips.
CIA propaganda
expert David Phillips.

The complex Mexico City story, not easily summarized, smells of cover-up in many other ways. The HSCA's Lopez Report flatly states that the CIA's contention that it didn't know Oswald had visited the Cuban Embassy until after the assassination is simply "incorrect". The idea that Oswald was an unimportant "blip on the Station's radar" was disputed by no less than CIA Mexico City station chief Win Scott, and one headquarters officer told the HSCA that when the name Oswald came on the radio after the assassination "the effect was electric." Propaganda officer David Phillips told HSCA investigators many contradictory stories; investigator Dan Hardway told author Gaeton Fonzi that "I'm firmly convinced now that he [Phillips] ran the red-herring, disinformation aspects of the plot. The thing that got him so nervous was when I started mentioning all the anti-Castro Cubans who were in reports filed with the Warren Commission and every one of them had a tie that I could trace back to him. That's what got him so upset. He knew the whole thing could unravel." Other agency employees dispute the official story in various ways. Explaining why CIA Headquarters sent out two cables on the Oswald with false information, prior to the assassination, officer Jane Roman said, "To me its indicative of a keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need to know basis."

The issue of a cover-up related to the Mexico City visit is hardly academic. Allegations that Oswald was in league with the Soviets and Cubans, and had been in contact with a KGB assassinations expert while in Mexico City, fueled the fear of World War III and helped put together the Warren Commission. Lyndon Johnson told Senator Russell that, after Earl Warren refused to serve on the Commission multiple times, "I just pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City," and Warren relented, reportedly with tears in his eyes.

There are indications that the Mexico City visit was a CIA operation of some sort, possibly related to operations against the Fair Play for Cuba Committee "in foreign countries" where the CIA told the FBI in September 1963 that it was "giving some thought to planting deceptive information which might embarrass the Committee in areas where it does have some support." A sensitive CIA operation might explain why FBI Domestic Intelligence officer Marvin Gheesling took Oswald's name off a watch list the day before a cable reporting the Oswald visit reached Washington DC. Oswald had been on this list, which ensured that incoming information on Oswald would be routed to the FBI's espionage division, since 1959.

But there are many motives for cover-up. If there was an intelligence connection to Oswald, and the Mexico City visit was part of this, might this alone explain the need for a cover-up? Perhaps CIA leaders decided it could simply not afford the embarrassment of an association with the man alleged to have killed the President?

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

This many years later, with inadequate investigation of these issues by those empowered to do so, reaching definitive conclusions is difficult. John Newman, a former military intelligence analyst who has studied these matters closely, concluded in a recent update to his Oswald and the CIA that there was one man with his fingerprints in all the right places - legendary CIA CounterIntelligence chief James Angleton. Angleton's division opened the Oswald file in 1960 and had it under close wraps in 1963, thus controlling the time bomb of information coming from Mexico until it was too late. CounterIntelligence officers were involved in the cabling of false information about Oswald surrounding that trip. Angleton also took over liaison functions with the Warren Commission, launching the CounterIntelligence division's long history with the post-assassination investigations. Newman writes that Angleton was one of very few who could be the "designer" of a plot which created such explosive information about Oswald and then kept it dormant until November 22, 1963.

Newman's analysis notes the importance of focusing on the actions of individuals - it is nonsensical to say that an agency as large as the CIA killed Kennedy. Even those who say that the assassination was run "from the top" of the Agency often excuse John McCone, who was after all the Director. The CIA is highly compartmentalized; the number of Agency officers knowledgeable about the Castro murder plots, for instance, was not very large. The "need to know" test limits access to knowledge of any covert operation, let alone a plot to murder the president of the United States. But the allegation that CIA officers were involved in such a plot, while never proven, has only grown in strength over time, gaining the adherence of many who have studied the assassination closely.

- Rex Bradford, May 2019

Related Starting Points


Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders - The Church Committee's Interim Report on CIA plots to kill Castro, Lumumba, and others.

Schweiker-Hart Report - The Church Committee's report on the "performance of the intelligence agencies" in supporting the Warren Commission.

see all Church Committee records.

HSCA Final Report, p.196, on CIA and Oswald.

HSCA Security Classified Testimony - HSCA interviews of CIA personnel.

Oswald, the CIA, and Mexico City. The HSCA's "Lopez Report" on Oswald in Mexico City was declassified in the 1990s.

see all HSCA records.

Oswald 201 File - CIA file on Lee Harvey Oswald, expanded into the CIA's JFK assassination file.

Russ Holmes Work File - Extensive JFK assassination collection maintained by CIA CounterIntelligence archivist Russell Holmes.

Segregated Collection - CIA records available to the HSCA investigation. See a separate microfilmed collection.

1967 Inspector General's Report - The CIA's internal report on plots to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Inspector General's Survey of the Cuban Operation and Associated Documents, Volume I. The CIA's post mortem on the Bay of Pigs; see also Volume II.

"Family Jewels". Compiled in the Watergate era, this set of memos on sensitive operations was declassified, with redactions, in 2007.

Numbered memos on Garrison investigation:

  • #1 (26 Apr 1967)
  • #2 (8 May 1967)
  • #3 (1 Jun 1967)
  • #4 (20 Jun 1967)
  • #5 (7 Aug 1967)
  • #6 (7 Sep 1967)
  • #7 (13 Sep 1967)
  • #8 (12 Jan 1968)
  • #9 (5 Jun 1968).

see all CIA records.

Foreign Relations of the US, 1958-1960, Volume VI: Cuba. This FRUS volume covers the period when Castro took power.

Warren Commission Document 347. CIA memo to the Warren Commission on Oswald's trip to Mexico.


Morley V. CIA. The story of Jefferson Morley's discovery that the CIA liaison to the HSCA was not who he appeared to be.

HSCA Interviews Relating to Mexico City. Taped interviews of Mexico City witnesses conducted by the HSCA.

Selected Essays

"Leftist" Lee at Work: The Great Debate and the Paper Chase, by Philip H. Melanson.

Book Resources

Book: The Last Investigation. Gaeton Fonzi, investigator for the Church Committee and HSCA, followed leads tying the CIA to the Kennedy assassination.

Book: Oswald in New Orleans: Case for Conspiracy with the CIA. The documentary appendix to Harold Weisberg's 1967 book, with highlighted excerpts.

Book: Ultimate Sacrifice. A variety of declassified documents referenced in the book by Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann describing an alleged plan for a Kennedy coup in Cuba.

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