Unredacted Episode 11: Transcript of Interview with Jefferson Morley
Jeff Morley is the author of the new book Our Man in Mexico, a biography of Mexico City CIA Station Chief Winston Scott. A former Washington Post journalist and now with the Center for Independent Media, Jeff is also engaged in a lawsuit with the CIA over undisclosed records relevant to the JFK assassination."
This interview was conducted on 9 Apr 2008.
Listen to the interview while reading: (29 min)
REX: Hello, this is Rex Bradford and welcome to another episode of Unredacted. I’m here with Jeff Morley, who is now National Editorial Director for the Center for Independent Media, and has also been pursuing a lawsuit against the CIA for records on George Joannides. Jeff is also the author of a new book called Our Man in Mexico, a biography of CIA station Chief Win Scott. Hi Jeff.
JEFF: Hi Rex, thanks for having me.
REX: Okay, in your biography, um, the story of Lee Harvey Oswald’s trip to Mexico City in the fall of ’63 has, uh, is part of that story, and that story has loomed larger in the JFK saga with the release of CIA records in the ‘90’s. But your book also has much more about Win Scott’s life and career, and I’m curious what you can tell us about what you learned about a man who ran one of the most important CIA stations at the height of the Cold War.
JEFF: Well Win Scott was really a representative figure. In the, in the first… the founding generation of the CIA, and, uh, he was not well-known. But he doesn’t loom large in the history of the Agency, I think mainly because he was not from that Ivy League set that dominated the CIA in its early days.
REX: Mm, hmm.
JEFF: He came from rural Alabama, from pretty humble circumstances. Uh, he was a mathematician. He attended the University of Alabama, not an Ivy League school. Um, but he was extremely smart, and very highly-regarded by all of his colleagues as soon as he started in, in intelligence work with the Office of Strategic Services, during World War II. And as the, as the OSS evolved into the CIA, Win Scott rose rapidly in the ranks.
REX: So, he was, he was there from the beginning.
JEFF: He was, he was there from the beginning. He was friends with, uh, all the leading figures of the early days of the CIA: Allen Dulles, James Angleton, um, they were all close, personal friends of Win Scott. So, his story really becomes emblematic of the CIA’s rise to power. And in it’s early days when it enjoyed unparalleled power and… and… and its actions were not questioned by the public or, or by Congress. That started to change by the time Win Scott retired, obviously there were many growing questions about the CIA which erupted into scandals in the ‘70’s. But in that period where the CIA was, was unchallenged, uh, Winn Scott was a very representative figure.
REX: Yeah, you write about his period as CIA Station Chief, that he was basically more important than the U.S. Ambassador down there, wasn’t he?
JEFF: Absolutely, and this is where you see the power of the CIA at that time. In the Mexican government there was no question: Win Scott was the American you wanted to talk to. The ambassador was not that important at that time. And it was testament to Win Scott’s personal charm and his bureaucratic savvy that he managed to maintain this position as being the primary voice, which was in complete contradiction with how the system‘s supposed to work. The ambassador is supposed to be the voice of the U.S. government. It was a testimony to his, to his skill, and his savvy, and his charm that he maintained this for more than a decade.
REX: Can you give an example of the kind of power he wielded there?
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JEFF: Uh...One of the first things that he did, and it’s relevant to the JFK story, was he vastly increased the CIA’s audio surveillance network in Mexico City. Before the, before he, in 1958 or so, or 1960, the CIA tapped about five or six phone lines in the Mexican capital. Win Scott expanded that to 30 phone lines, covering all the communist embassies, and throwing in for good measure, the home phones of many of Mexico’s leading leftists, whom the government wanted to keep track of. So, he vastly expanded the, the array of daily intelligence that he could purvey to the Mexican government, and that he could use in his own CIA operation.
REX: Mm, hmm.
JEFF: When the U.S. government had, uh, trouble with, uh, Mexican, with the statements of the Mexican government, which were sometimes nationalistic, sometimes pro-Castro, the protests were not sent through, um, through the ambassador, the protests were sent through Win Scott. And when Allen Dulles, was, in particular was annoyed with the Mexicans he came to Mexico and met with the Mexican president himself without the ambassador, another violation of diplomatic protocol, and Win Scott did the interpreting. So, he was the, on both sides, the, both the Mexican leadership and the U.S. leadership, Win Scott was the key power-broker in Mexico.
REX: Mm, hmm. Now, you got to know his son Michael, who wrote the foreword to the book in fact. And Michael had fought for years for access to his father’s memoirs, which had been scooped up by CIA CounterIntelligence head James Angleton, upon Win’s death. And Michael’s fight for the memoirs seems, uh, perhaps a more personal version of the larger story of the struggle to reveal secrets from that history. How did you get to know Michael?
JEFF: I had originally been, uh, referred to Michael, his lawyer was a friend of mine, and he said, you know, "I’ve got a client who would make a good story.” And so he introduced me to Michael and I wrote a story about him for the Washington Post back in 1996. Became friendly with him, and, uh, Michael had done a tremendous amount of research on his father, before I ever met him. He had gone back to talk to friends of his fathers who had survived, he had collected pictures from relatives and friends, he had found his father’s correspondence, He’d found home movies. So, Michael had this amazing trove of very personal information that’d be very hard to get at under other circumstances, and he shared it all with me, in, in, incredibly generously, and so as a writer it was just a wonderful gift to have this intimate material, and it really, you know, it, it made the book. Michael trusted me with his father’s story, it’s not, I mean, I didn’t say, you know, he never said, “You can’t say that,” or, “Don’t say that,” or any...you know, about his father. And so, I think I was able to write a book that was, you know, personally sympathetic to the man, without engaging in polemics, or judging his actions. Really just trying to report, you know, what did the world look like through the eyes of a very powerful CIA official in this revolutionary era. And I think the book succeeds in, you know, in presenting that. I was very happy to get a positive review from the Wall Street Journal and Ed, Ed Epstein, who is a conservative writer, and I probably don’t agree with him on a lot of things, but I think he recognized that there was just lots of new information in the book that didn’t demand that the reader take a side in sort of the political interpretation.
REX: Mm, hmm. There’s also clearly a lot of personal family information that comes from Michael and I guess other people as well.
REX: Could you summarize the story of the memoirs, uh, and, and, how Michael got a hold of at least portions of them from the CIA?
JEFF: Yeah, I mean, Michael’s search for the memoirs is kind of, a, a thread that runs throughout the book. Win Scott retired in 1969 and he set out to write a book, about a memoir of his career. He said in the, in the foreword that his intention was to pass along to another generation of CIA officers what he had learned and how he could...you know, to help the CIA with its mission. He wrote the book over the course of a couple months in the fall of 1970, and intended to publish it. I think that he had been influenced by Kim Philby - this Soviet spy whom he had known in London during the war years. Kim Philby had written a memoir of his espionage career in 1968 called My Silent War, and I think that Winn wanted to, uh, kind of respond in kind. If a top Soviet spy was going to write a book he was going to write a book, you know, that would give the American side. And so he wrote this book. He became friends with a man name John Barron, who wrote for Reader’s Digest, who was very sympathetic and helped the CIA in many publishing projects. And Barron was gonna get the book published by Reader’s Digest Press. What Scott didn’t know was that Barron shared a copy with the CIA leadership in Washington without telling Win. And CIA Director Dick Helms was appalled. Um, it was, uh, Scott in the manuscript talked about very sensitive things, he talked, he talked about Lee Harvey Oswald and his visit to Mexico City, he talked about agency operations, he talked about Kim Philby, um, and so the uh, uh...
REX: If I could jump in: were you able to get any sense to, to what extent the Oswald story was their focus, or were they, was their objection to the whole slough of the book or whole parts of it?
JEFF: Um, uh, well, I think...What, what I would say about that is that I think that there was, there was an eight page chapter on Oswald, and I think that it was very important for Win Scott to state what he knew about Oswald. Um, so, and I think the reason why...What Scott said was that the Warren Commission had made a mistake, and he pointed this out, uh, this line in the, in the Warren Commission which said that the CIA in Mexico City had not known about Oswald’s contacts with people in the Cuban Embassy until after Kennedy was killed. It was only then, according to the Warren Commission, that the CIA figured out that Oswald had, had made a visit there. Win Scott said flatly that that was untrue. And he was right, I mean, he knew, he ran those surveillance networks. He said, “We picked up on Oswald right away, we knew that he had visited the Cubans, we knew that he had visited the Soviets. He was a figure of keen interest.” That was his phrase, “keen interest.”
REX: Mm, hmm.
JEFF: And so Scott didn’t like the, the imputation, or the implication that the Warren Commission assertion was that somehow his surveillance of the Cuban Consulate had failed. Scott prided himself on having the Communist embassies blanketed, and that he knew everything - every person that came and went, every conversation, he was on top of it. So, I think that he didn’t like that assertion.
REX: Mm, hmm.
JEFF: So there was a deeper, there was a deeper point to what Win Scott was doing and that was that in the years after the assassination, Scott had continued to collect information - presumably about Oswald’s time in Mexico - and as he did that Scott learned that the Warren Commission account of Oswald’s time in Mexico was completely useless. It was, it was a much more complicated story than the Warren Commission ever knew. And what’s more is that those questions about Oswald’s visit were extremely sensitive within the Agency. And, uh, in, in the fall...in the summer of 1967, two things happened. One was that a Mexico City newspaper ran a story identifying for the first time a pre-assassination communication about Oswald. This was a cable that was written on October 10th, 1963 in response to Scott’s query about Oswald. Oswald had visited the embassy and he wrote a cable to Washington and said, “Who is this guy Oswald who we’ve picked up on?” And the headquarters sent back a reply saying "here's what we know about Oswald." In March 1967 when the Mexico City News, an English-language paper in Mexico, first revealed the existence of that cable, which had, was totally unknown until that time, Win Scott had a heart attack within a few days. If that cable and the revelation of its existence were clearly upsetting him. Scott continued to talk among, among his friends about what he knew about Oswald. The Agency and Angleton, Jim Angleton in particular, got wind of these conversations and warned him to stop talking about Oswald, and I believe that Win Scott wrote his, uh, wrote his chapter in his book in self-defense. This was at a time when Jim Garrison was launching his investigation, there were many calls for re-opening the investigation. Scott himself knew that the Warren Commission was flawed in fundamental ways at least when it came to Oswald’s visit, and also Scott never believed the larger conclusion. He felt that there had been, and wrote that he suspected that there had been a conspiracy which the Soviets were behind.
REX: Mm, hmm.
JEFF: So, Win Scott wrote all of this I think to lay down a marker which was, “The Warren Commission was wrong, other people might have failed to do their job when it came to Oswald and Mexico City, but I did my job.” He wanted to state that publicly and clearly in case the investigation was ever re-opened, and he would, he would have grounds for saying, here’s my, here’s my story.
REX: I understand. Well, it’s - his account is fascinating because he goes further and says Oswald was photographed going in and out of embassies, and, as many people who follow the sstory know, there have been many allegations of Oswald photographs but none has ever appeared in the record. And even more than that his account, um, doesn’t square, apparently with, uh, the, the CIA’s official story to this day. There’s a 133 page chronology on what "really happened" in Mexico City according to the CIA based on the collection of cables and other post-assassination material we have now. And, you know the - to the extent that the CIA has a position at this point on that, it’s that Win Scott was just flat out wrong and either exaggerating or had a poor memory. I wonder if you want to comment on that.
JEFF: Well, I mean, I think it, I think that there’s some human error possible on his account: he wasn’t working from documents, he was working from memory, he certainly did make other mistakes in the course of doing this, it may be that Scott got parts of the story wrong, but that doesn’t, that doesn’t, that can’t explain the larger problems, or the larger inconsistencies between the, the CIA’s account and the account of their man on the ground. I mean, the, the notion that Win Scott made this stuff up, or, you know, it’s just totally unsupported. Win Scott got one of the highest medals in the Agency, he was routinely praised for running one of the best CIA stations in the world, his attention to detail, his capacity to absorb information, uh, with all, you know, kind of the gold standard of the Agency, so, he is on these questions a very reliable source, and the difference between his account and the official account is very striking.
REX: It is, and he’s actually supported by, uh, certain people. There are people that claim to have seen photographs of Oswald taken outside of one of the embassies in Mexico City for instance.
JEFF: I quote the two, the two former CIA officers who independently described a very similar-looking photograph of Oswald that, you know, that Win Scott showed them, that they had seen in Win Scott’s files. So, I think, uh, I think that it’s quite likely that, you know, that there were such photographs.
REX: Mm, hmm. Well, many people believe that there was a post-assassination cover-up of evidence that Oswald had been to the Cuban Embassy and that that was known. What, what - given that it’s not disputed that he was at the Soviet Embassy, what’s your take on this: is this covering for some sort of CIA operation targeting the Cuban Embassy or do you have a...I’m curious on why this is such a big secret.
JEFF: I think, I think that that’s, I think that’s the most likely explanation. I don’t assert it as truth, because it’s very difficult to untangle what was really going on, but the, the shifting accounts of the people who were involved and the sensitivity of Oswald’s visit to the, uh, to the Cuban Embassy, are very, are very striking. David Phillips, who was, who was, uh, Win’s closest colleague probably and in charge of the surveillance of the Cubans never managed to give a coherent account of what he knew about Oswald’s visit there. By my count he gave four different stories of what he knew about that. I mean, and so, I think the, the one thing you can extrapolate is I felt that there was an extremely sensitive matter, that was, that was handled very carefully at the time, before the assassination and after the assassination, and that, to me that sort of interest can only, I mean, is probably best explained by what the CIA does, which is covert operations. Uh, so, I’m going to argue the point a little more forcefully in a piece that’s coming out later this month. I think there probably was some kind of authorized operation going on around Oswald. That doesn’t mean that that operation was a conspiracy to kill the president, it just means that there was some intelligence gathering or counter-intelligence activity that, uh, you know, that involved him.
REX: Well, you and John Newman interviewed Jane Roman a few years back up at Headquarters, and was one of the people who wrote a cable back down to...in response to Win Scott, giving some false information about Oswald, and so...
JEFF: That’s another sign, another sign that there might have been an operation going on. Jane Roman said when shown the paper trail and asked to explain it that she thought that the inaccurate information in the cable was a reflection of a keen interest in Oswald. And she also used the words “keen interest” like Win Scott, um, a keen interest in Oswald. And also that people were holding information on a need-to-know basis. Well, in CIA circles, you know, you hold information on a need-to-know basis in order to keep an operation covert. So I think one of the most important findings is that when it came to the latest intelligence on Oswald, in October 1963, Winn Scott was deliberately cut out of the loop by his superiors at headquarters.
REX: Well, you’ve written a fascinating book, beyond the new information it offers about the Kennedy assassination. It’s a remarkable story about a remarkable person. I wonder if we could switch gears, because you’re involved in this story in a different way, as many people know, in a lawsuit with the CIA over records of George Joannides. Could you remind people who Joannides was and what the lawsuit’s about?
JEFF: George Joannides is also a CIA officer, uh, in 1963, not as high a ranking as Win Scott. He was the Chief of Psychological Warfare Operations against the Castro government. He worked undercover in Miami in 1963. He’s a minor character in the Win Scott story, but he is a central character in the story of the Kennedy assassination for this reason: he was running the Cuban student exile group whose members in New Orleans had strange confrontations with Oswald in August 1963, and Oswald’s antics on behalf of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in New Orleans in August 1963, have long been of interest to people involved in the assassination. So, Joannides' role as the sponsor of Oswald’s antagonists was unknown until I first wrote about it for the Miami New Times Newspaper in 2001. In 2004, um, 2003 I submitted a Freedom of Information request for all of Joannides’ records for 1963. That was turned down. So I filed a lawsuit in December of 2003. That lawsuit is, unbelievably is still going on now, you know, close to five years later.
REX: Mm, hmm. Now, the other aspect of Joannides is that he was part of the JFK story in 1978 when he was brought out of retirement to serve as a liaison to the House Committee, which, uh, could be viewed as the fox guarding the hen house, I guess...
JEFF: Yeah, and the fact that Joannides appears not once but twice in the JFK story, uh, at first as an undercover agent with some conceivable connection to Oswald, and then as a, a liaison in charge of providing information to investigators is, I mean, those two things alone are quite extraordinary, but then the fact that he was utterly, the fact that he had done both of those things was hidden for thirty-five years was even more remarkable. So...
JEFF: Oh, go ahead.
REX: I was just going to say that so, you in the lawsuit had lost the case, but then appealed, and were back in court about a month or so ago, and there’s some movement on the case. Could you give us an update?
JEFF: Yeah, so, we lost the first round: the case was dismissed in September of 2006. We appealed, uh, my attorney and I appealed that decision and won a unanimous decision from the Federal Appeals Court, saying that the CIA had not complied with the Freedom of Information Act, and that they had to do more searches, they had to explain why certain key documents from 1963 were missing from the CIA archives, um, they had to go back and reclassify some information, and, that was in December of this year. The judges gave the CIA 90 days to respond. We were in court in Feb - at the end of February to basically, to make arrangements for the fulfillment of the judges of the appellate court order. And at that time the CIA said that it would provide all the material that was ordered by the appellate court, they would produce all of that on April 30th. So we will get something from the CIA in terms of their response to this order at the end of the month.
REX: What, what in particular of the documents, do you think, are either requested or, or likely to appear? I know there, there’s seventeen months of DRE monthly progress reports which may or may not be lost to history at this point. What else is there that you think you might get?
JEFF: I think one of the most significant things that the appellate court did was it ordered the CIA to search its operational files on Joannides. Um, which is very rare under the Freedom of Information, it’s hard to get the courts to order the CIA to do that, and they in fact did it in this case. So, uh, I think the two questions on Joannides are: what was he doing in 1963, in particular what was he doing in August of 1963 when his agents from the Cuban community had extended and repeated contact with Oswald and were calling attention to his protests and activities? Did Joannides ever learn about that, I think that’s one question. And the second question is what was Joannides’ response on November 22 when the president was killed and his agents in the Cuban community immediately went public with the claim that the accused assassin was a pro-Castro activist? Um, it was his own, his own agents that had documented that information, that had contact with Oswald, and that made those claims in the first, within hours of Kennedy’s murder. What did Joannides think of that? I mean it was a, an astonishing development that hit very close to home from his intelligence operation. It’s a completely dark area, we know very little about it, very little documentation has surfaced about what Joannides thought or what the CIA thought of the contacts. So, hopefully if the CIA complies with the law and we will get some, shed some light on what Joannides was doing at that time.
REX: Also if I remember correctly, uh, he apparently traveled to New Orleans in 1964, in April, around the same time that Carlos Bringuier and other DRE members were being interviewed by the Warren Commission? He... And... You hope he...
REX: Go ahead.
JEFF: I think as early on in the lawsuit the CIA did turn over some material, and I specifically asked for travel records, because I had this thought that Joannides might have been working in New Orleans at the time that Oswald was having his confrontations with the Cubans in New Orleans. And sure enough there were two travel expense reform from April and May 1964 which showed that Joannides traveled from Washington and Miami to New Orleans. The purpose of that, of those trips is unknown, but it is a fact that he left on the first trip on April 1st, 1964. That was the day that the Warren Commission wrote to Carlos Bringuier and said, “We are going to be in New Orleans next week, and we want to interview you.” So, one, one, thing that I’m hoping for in the additional files is, is where is Joannides, is Joannides travel in 1963? Um, one could say he went to, or speculate that he went to New Orleans to coach the witnesses, or deal with the possibility of that his people were being interviewed by the investigators. But, um, I think that th larger question is was he in New Orleans in 1963? And, uh, we just don’t know that. The travel records and that part of the request, the combination of the travel records and operational records might, you know, lead us to something, a new light, right there.
REX: Alright well, good luck with that. And thanks.
JEFF: Thank you.