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How the CIA Controls the Past
The Friday-night news dump is a venerable Washington art form, admired by jaded journos for its sheer cynical efficiency. The White House saves the announcement of some embarrassing, compromised, or dubious deed (a wife-beating nominee, an indicted Cabinet secretary, an eight-digit budget boo-boo) for Friday at dusk, just as reporters and editors are folding up their Macs at home or skedaddling out the door of the newsroom. At the TV networks, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the wire services, and other corporate news organizations in the nation’s capital, the first team flees, and weekend staffers take over running the news desks and updating the home pages. The thrumming capital news cycle downshifts a gear or two for the next 36 hours or so.
Spin doctors in the White House press office know that the best reporters, no matter how nakedly ambitious, don’t want to spend Friday night jumping on a story—even if it reeks of abuse, incompetence, or corruption. So, the White House can distribute a bag of foul dog excrement late Friday with justified hopes of getting minimal attention until Monday morning when, with newer and shinier developments piling up on the harried news editor’s desk, the now-dated odiferous news dump gets less attention than it otherwise would. Or no attention at all.
Thus, at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 30—not just a Friday night but, conveniently, a Friday night before the long July 4 weekend—White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced President Biden’s “final order” on records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The timing was ideal for burying the story: The DC news business wouldn’t really resume full blast until the following Wednesday, four days of American patriotic rituals later. This veritable news purgatory would surely forgive all but the worst of sins.
With the release of an additional 2,000 JFK files in 2023, Jean-Pierre boasted, Biden had disclosed 99 percent of the JFK files in the National Archives. She went on to say that the future release of records, all of them said to be insignificant and unrelated to JFK’s death, would be governed by a reassuringly named “Transparency Plan” to protect details vital to national security. Nothing to see here. Have a good long weekend.
The smell seeped from the fine print. Biden’s “Transparency Plan,” authored by the CIA, gives US intelligence agencies the final say over the release of the last of the JFK files, an egregious violation of the intent of Congress, which when it approved the JFK Records Act unanimously in October 1992 (with Sen. Biden of Delaware joining in acclamation), accorded the president “non-delegable” authority over the release of all JFK files.
Thirty years later, President Biden delegated away what Sen. Biden had said was non-delegable. As the Dallas Observer noted, the commander in chief was “washing his hands” of the JFK files. Like his predecessor, Donald Trump, Biden deferred to the CIA rather than contest its control of the remaining JFK files. In 2017, Trump tweeted that all assassination records had been released ahead of schedule, which was doubly dubious. All the files weren’t released, and the ones that were appeared years behind schedule.
The refusal of two presidents to challenge the agency starkly illuminates who controls the historical record of JFK’s assassination in 2023. It isn’t the American people. It isn’t Congress. It isn’t the National Archives. It is America’s clandestine service, and there is a whole lot of the story the spooks don’t want us to see.
That’s why the stench localized to Langley, Va. The US government, it turns out, is withholding portions of some 4,600 assassination-related records, most of them held by the CIA. The JFK Records Act called for full disclosure of all records by October 2017, except in the “rarest of cases.”
The deadline is six years blown, and the CIA has driven a truckload of documents through the rarest of loopholes. From now on, thanks to Biden, an executive-branch office called the National Declassification Center will determine when these last JFK files can be released, relying on guidance from that opaque monolith of the American surveillance state, the National Security Agency.
That was the smelliest data point the president’s men and women wanted to bury. The CIA has effectively regained control of the JFK assassination files. Unless the next president objects, he (or she) will have no say over what, if anything, becomes public in the years to come.
The unseen material includes the lightly redacted secret testimony of top CIA officials to the Church Committee, the missing files of undercover officers involved in surveillance of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans prior to the JFK killing; the identity of a Mexican agent who photographed Oswald; and a full page of a June 1961 memo from JFK adviser Arthur Schlesinger about how the president might reorganize the CIA so as to curb its undue influence over American foreign policy.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who during his presidential campaign has regularly speculated about the role of the intelligence agencies in his uncle’s murder, asserts that the latest JFK files prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that CIA personnel were involved. This is an overstatement, but there is plenty to suggest the CIA is still hiding significant facts. For instance, a 1977 CIA memo, not fully declassified until last year, shows that the agency itself probed the possible involvement of anti-Castro Cubans in the assassination.
In 1977, Donald Heath, a now-deceased undercover officer, told congressional investigators that in the days after Kennedy was killed, his bosses in the CIA’s Miami station had spurned the “lone-gunman” theory. Instead, they ordered a secret investigation of anti-communist Cubans in South Florida for a possible role in the Dallas ambush. The CIA has never shared results of this “fairly massive undertaking” with investigators or the public.
RFK Jr.’s father also suspected anti-Castro Cubans had a hand in the Dealey Plaza ambush, according to David Talbot’s definitive 2008 book, Brothers. Through extensive interviewing of RFK’s associates, Talbot showed that Bobby concluded some combination of CIA operatives, anti-Castro Cubans, and organized-crime figures were behind his brother’s murder.
All of which is why Biden’s Friday-night news dump failed in the end. The smell proved too newsworthy to ignore.
On July 14, Peter Baker of The New York Times reported that the Trump and Biden administrations’ claims of full disclosure were called into question by a 1962 CIA memo, not declassified until May 2023, which yielded a fascinating detail: the name of the CIA official who read the mail of Lee Harvey Oswald.
You didn’t know the CIA had intercepted, read, copied, and filed Oswald’s mail for 20 months before he allegedly shot Kennedy dead in Dealey Plaza? Don’t worry, no reader of the Times did. The newspaper of record had never reported the fact of the CIA surveillance of the supposed assassin, which was first disclosed by congressional investigators in the 1970s and has been largely ignored by JFK authors ever since.
The man who read Oswald’s mail was Reuben Efron, the deputy chief of the CIA’s illicit mail-surveillance program in the early 1960s. The program spied on thousands of Americans from 1955 to 1974, a gross violation of the agency’s charter banning covert operations against US citizens.
The memo showed that Efron had learned that a former radar operator at the CIA’s top-secret base in Atsugi, Japan, named Lee Oswald had returned from a two-year stay in the Soviet Union. Efron shared a purloined July 1961 letter written by Oswald’s mother with a colleague in the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff.
The memo memorialized the CIA’s literary interest in the future alleged assassin. In the letter, Mrs. Oswald told Lee she was trying to find a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 to send to him while he was living in the Soviet Union. Now that Oswald was back in the United States, Efron thought the colleague would be interested in Mrs. Oswald’s missive.
This wasn’t quite what journalists call a “bombshell,” but the Times was surely correct that it was fit to print. The disclosure of Efron’s name was more like a landmine—an explosion that revealed a line of defense.
Efron’s name was the very last detail from the CIA’s pre-assassination Oswald file to be declassified. Between Nov. 11, 1959, and Nov. 22, 1963, the agency collected at least 42 documents about Oswald, his travels, his politics, his personal life, and intercepted six letters from his mother. It only took 61 years for the CIA to disclose fully what it knew about Oswald—and who knew it.
Efron’s long-secret memo didn’t, by itself, refute the government’s lone-gunman theory. At the very least, however, it called into question the competence of the CIA. Not only were senior officials in the clandestine service well aware of Oswald’s existence while JFK was alive, but they were also assiduously collecting details on his personal life, right down to his desire to read 1984—a novel, as it happens, in which state monitoring of citizens’ reading habits is the norm.
The dating of Efron’s memo also showed that top CIA counterintelligence officers were interested in Oswald after his return to the United States in the summer of 1962, a sharp rebuke to the conventional wisdom that Oswald was a psychotic loser of no interest to anyone. To the contrary, Oswald was of deep interest to the counterintelligence savants of Langley from November 1959 to November 1963.
The CIA was simply watching Oswald to see if he was a Soviet agent, say partisans of the lone-gunman theory. This ingenuous claim, alas, can’t be unverified. The agency offered no such explanation to the Times, and declined to comment on Efron’s memo, which is what agency spokesmen are instructed to do when asked about duly authorized covert operations: Neither confirm nor deny.
The questions raised by Efron’s memo—and the CIA’s studious evasions thereof—are obvious to anybody interested in the causes of Kennedy’s death, which, it seems, includes at least two presidential candidates and some sizable segment of the voting public. A nationwide poll of 2022 midterm voters, conducted by Democratic polling firm Bendixen Amandi, found that 50 percent believe JFK was killed by a conspiracy. Of those who believe there was a conspiracy, the largest plurality, nearly a third, blame the CIA.
The Times story hinted at, but didn’t ask, the obvious question: Who assigned Efron to read Oswald’s mail?
It was almost certainly Efron’s boss at the Counterintelligence Staff, James Jesus Angleton, a metaphysician of espionage, tricky, spooky, obtuse, and alcoholic. The CIA won’t comment, because any statement would confirm that this controversial character and his minions were paying attention to Oswald while JFK was preparing for a political trip to Texas. Not a good look, especially for the CIA’s 3.4 million followers on Twitter.
Why did the multilingual Efron show up at widow Marina Oswald’s first appearance before the Warren Commission in February 1964, his agency affiliation unmentioned for the record? Presumably to assist the commission’s Russian-speaking interpreters, but the CIA won’t confirm that, and for understandable reasons. If a Langley flak catcher said anything on the subject, he or she would confirm to the American electorate that a CIA spook read Oswald’s mail before JFK’s murder and spied on the widow of the alleged killer afterward. Another lousy look for an image-conscious agency.
Finally, after Efron died in 1993 (on Nov. 22, coincidentally), why was his name withheld for 30 years? Even CIA apologists in the Washington press corps don’t have a good explanation. The agency wasn’t protecting the safety of a living agent, since Efron had passed long ago. So what were they protecting? Was it an authorized, still-undisclosed, covert operation that intentionally used Oswald for counterintelligence purposes? It’s a legitimate question raised not by “conspiracy theorists,” but by Efron’s memo. It is telling that the CIA has no answer it cares to make public a full six decades after Kennedy’s murder.
This brings us back to RFK Jr., whose campaign has brought the unresolved questions around the assassinations of both his father and his uncle back into mainstream discussion. Appearing at a town-hall event with Fox News personality Sean Hannity, Kennedy jumped on the Times story about Efron—and fumbled the facts, asserting: “The last tranche of documents released had documentation that finally got even The New York Times to admit that Lee Harvey Oswald was a CIA asset. That he was working for the CIA.”
The Times story, however, showed only that Oswald was a figure of interest to top officials, which raised the possibility he was a CIA asset—but certainly didn’t prove it. Like many a politician, Kennedy found a spiritual truth in a news story and tailored the details to suit his message. But this exaggeration didn’t inspire the same indignation as his other gaffes.
RFK Jr.’s campaign, propelled by the family name, his record as an environmental lawyer, sympathetic podcasters, and encouraging words from right-wing power brokers, has been blasted by a summer tsunami of liberal punditry. Anxious center-left scribes have laid to waste to Kennedy’s musings about Chinese and Jewish susceptibility to Covid, his contradictory statements about the efficacy of vaccines, his heterodox position on the Ukraine war, and his unseemly role in his wife’s suicide; various siblings and cousins have denounced him.
But Kennedy’s views on his uncle’s assassination haven’t been front and center in these attacks. JFK’s grandson, Jake Schlossberg, son of Caroline Kennedy, called his cousin’s candidacy “a joke,” but he didn’t address his grandfather’s murder. New Yorker editor David Remnick dismissed the candidate’s analysis of Nov. 22 without getting into the facts he has adduced.
Times columnist Michelle Goldberg noted perceptively that JFK’s assassination is the well-spring of Kennedy’s appeal. His candidacy, she wrote,
has a messianic cast, promising deliverance from the division and confusion that began with JFK’s assassination and reached a terrifying apotheosis during the Covid pandemic. “We are in the last battle,” Kennedy said in a 2021 speech at a California church famous for defying pandemic restrictions. “This is the apocalypse. We are fighting for the salvation of all humanity.” In Kennedy’s campaign, this chiliastic vision is translated into a story about the renewal of a lost American golden age, before the murders of his uncle and then his father, Robert F. Kennedy.
The problem for the liberal pundits is that while many of RFK Jr.’s statements are likely false or misleading, his basic claims about his uncle and his father’s murder aren’t. While factually sloppy, his comments are consistent with what his father believed and with the new evidence that has emerged since the 1990s—evidence that has been largely ignored by the liberal pundit class.
Worse yet for his critics, RFK Jr’s views on the JFK assassination align with public opinion. A near majority of Americans believe JFK was killed by his enemies and that the government’s lone-gunman theory is false. And according to that Bendixen Amandi poll, this belief is shared by 42 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of Republicans, and 59 percent of people who identify themselves as independent or “other.”
Asked if Biden should order the release of all JFK files or withhold some material as requested by the CIA and FBI, 66 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of Republicans, and 69 percent of independents said all the files should be released. Only 14 percent of Democrats, 9 percent of Republicans, and 5 percent of independents favored the course Biden took on June 30.
The belief in CIA culpability in JFK’s death is deeply ingrained in American political culture. That hypothesis finds support—albeit no smoking gun—in the latest batch of JFK files. What if RFK Jr., the man liberals say is wrong about most everything, is right about JFK’s assassination? The CIA’s bizarre, suspicious, and unchallenged secrecy around its handling of Oswald and anti-Castro Cubans leaves open the disconcerting possibility. So does Biden’s abdication of presidential authority.
While RFK Jr. flubs the details and overstates his case, the JFK assassination is a strength, not a weakness, for his insurgent campaign. He has made the control of history an issue that won’t go away in the 2024 election.
Jefferson Morley | Compact | 14.08.2023