From the September-October 1999 issue (Vol. 6 No. 6) Probe
Copyright 1999 by John Newman.
All Rights Reserved.
I. The Rosetta Stone
The Assassination Records Review Board finished its search more than a year ago – a search for records relating to the murder of a president thirty-six years ago. Surprisingly, the passage of time has not managed to erode or cover over all of the important evidence. On the contrary, the work of the Review Board has uncovered important new leads in the case. I will leave medical and ballistic forensics to others. I will confine myself to document forensics, an area for which the work of the board had been nothing less than spectacular. More specifically, I will confine myself to the documentary record concerning Lee Harvey Oswald's 1963 visit to Mexico City.
In 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) completed its work, including a report on Oswald's activities in Mexico written by Eddie Lopez and Dan Hardway. Our first glimpses of their report began shortly after the 1993 passage of the JFK Records Act. Not even all the redactions of those early versions could hide the seminal discoveries in that work. While Lopez couched his words in careful language, he suggested that Oswald might have been impersonated while he was in Mexico City just weeks before the assassination. Lopez was more forthright when I interviewed him about this in 1995. Armed with more CIA documents and the first Russian commentary (Nechiporenko's book, Passport to Assassination), I went further in my own Oswald and the CIA (Carroll & Graf: 1995) in advancing the argument that Oswald was impersonated in the Mexican capitol. Specifically, someone pretending to be Oswald made a series of telephone calls between 28 September and 1 October, allegedly to and from the Cuban and Soviet consulates in Mexico City.
I concluded then, that, based on the content of the CIA Mexico City telephone transcripts alone, the speaker purporting to be Oswald was probably an impostor. I will not repeat my lengthy discussion here, other than to summarize it in this way: the speaker's words were incongruous with the experiences we can be reasonably certain Oswald underwent. For reasons still obscure, the CIA has lied consistently for these past several decades about the tapes from which those transcripts were made. The Agency concocted the story that the tapes were routinely destroyed before the assassination. It is perhaps true that some tapes were destroyed before the assassination. But Lopez uncovered FBI documents containing detailed accounts of how two of the tapes were listened to after the assassination by FBI agents familiar with Oswald's voice.
More evidence would come in time. Shortly after the passage of the JFK Records Act, the public gained access to a telephone transcript the day after the assassination in which FBI Director Hoover informs President Johnson that it is not Oswald's voice on the tapes. The Review Board diligently followed these leads and settled the matter when they found CIA documents in which the Agency itself explicitly states that some of the tapes were reviewed after the assassination. The CIA's continued silence on the matter of the tapes stands, like a giant beacon, pointing the way forward to the investigator. The impersonation of Oswald in Mexico by someone who drew attention to an Oswald connection to a KGB assassination officer may prove to be the Rosetta stone of this case.
Before going further, I once again pay tribute to Peter Dale Scott, who wrote of these matters as early as 1995, advancing his "Phase I-Phase II hypothesis" on largely deaf ears. I will not repeat his lengthy discussion here, other than to summarize it in this way: In Phase I, immediately after the assassination, previously planted evidence of a Cuban/Kremlin plot surfaced in Oswald's files; this, in turn, precipitated Phase II, in which a lone-nut cover-up was erected to prevent a nuclear war.
In Oswald and the CIA, I deliberately steered clear of the conspiracy-anti-conspiracy vortex in order to set out some of the facts concerning Oswald's pre-assassination files. Since then, the cumulative weight of the evidence uncovered by the Review Board has led me to the conclusion that the Oswald impersonation can best be explained in terms of a plot to murder the president. I remain open to other interpretations and fresh analyses by fellow researchers, and I understand that new evidence could corroborate or undermine this hypothesis. What follows is a first stab at explaining, in a short and simple way, how those plotting the president's murder may have left their fingerprints in the files.
II. Puzzles and Pieces
Since Oswald would have no reason to arrange for his own impersonation, there are three possibilities concerning the purpose of this impersonation: it was only part of a legitimate intelligence operation; it was only part of a conspiratorial plot; or, the third alternative which combines both: it was part of a legitimate intelligence operation manipulated by a plotter or plotters. These are three distinct puzzles. Into which one do the pieces fit most easily?
For the purposes of this discussion I will reject the proposition that it was only part of a crude conspiratorial plot, carried out by schemers unfamiliar with the inner-workings of the U.S. intelligence community. By exposing themselves to such intense U.S. intelligence scrutiny, the conspirators would have put themselves at unacceptable risk and raised the chances that Oswald would not be in the Texas School Book Depository when the president's motorcade drove by. Thus we are left with two puzzles: an intelligence operation or a legitimate operation manipulated by plotters. Before deciding, let us examine the characteristics of some of the more unique-looking pieces.
The weirdest, most gangly piece is the 28 September phone transcript. In addition to the Oswald impersonator, there are two more speakers on this one. The phone call is between the Cuban Consulate and the Soviet Embassy at a time when no one was in the Cuban Consulate and the Soviets were in the middle of preparing a report to KGB HQ on Oswald's activities. The FBI confirmed that the Oswald character was played by someone else. Another speaker in this transcript, the secretary in the Cuban Consulate, Silvia Duran, had to have been impersonated if, as she and her colleagues have repeatedly claimed and testified, the Cuban consulate was closed at the time of the telephone call.
This only leaves one other person, the man allegedly in the Soviet Embassy. If he is truly in the Soviet Embassy, then one could advance the argument that this was some sort of CIA penetration operation. If the Soviet man, too, was impersonated, then there was no legitimate intelligence operation even though it was probably designed to look like one. We should bear in mind that the CIA has never publicly claimed these phone calls were part of any intelligence operation and the Russians have no recollection of such a call. In fact, at the very time this phone call was supposed to have been made to the Soviet Embassy, the three staff members with whom Oswald had visited for an hour were still in the building and in the process of assembling all of the details for a cable to KGB Central in Moscow. It is frustrating that, in 1999, when Boris Yeltsin handed over KGB files on Oswald to President Clinton, they did not include the Soviet Embassy cables that were sent at the time of this bogus 3-person telephone call. Those contemporaneous cables could provide corroboration for the later Soviet (Nechiporenko- Kostikov) account.
The second puzzle piece is the 1 October telephone transcript, wherein the Oswald impersonator mentions a meeting with Valery Kostikov – a man known to the CIA as the chief of KGB assassination operations for the entire Western hemisphere. In fact, according to CIA cables and Kostikov himself, the real Oswald did meet Kostikov in Mexico. What, then, was the purpose of this impersonation? When we hold this second piece side-by-side with the first piece, we are drawn to the possibility of a plot to murder the president, an integral part of which was planting – in CIA channels – evidence of an international communist conspiracy.
The third piece is a missing transcript. We know there was a 30 September tape because of the recollection of the CIA translator who transcribed it. Her name is Mrs. Tarasoff and she remembers not only transcribing it but also the fact that the Oswald voice was the same as the 28 September voice – in other words the same Oswald impostor. This piece is all the more unique because Mrs. Tarasoff remembers the Oswald character asked the Soviets for money to help him defect, once again, to the Soviet Union.
Finally, this piece has another side to it as well: it concerns what a CIA officer at the Mexico City station had to say about it. His name was David Atlee Phillips and, in sworn testimony to the HSCA, he backed up Mrs. Tarasoff's claim about the tape and the request for money to assist in another defection to the Soviet Union. But the Phillips story has another twist. The day before his sworn testimony, Phillips told a different, more provocative version to Ron Kessler of the Washington Post. He told Kessler that on this tape Oswald asked for money in exchange for information. Why was this crucial transcript destroyed? What motivated Phillips to tell two different stories about this piece in less than 24 hours?
This third piece not only reinforces the likelihood that the plotters were seeking to ensure CIA sources would reveal a link between Oswald and the Soviets, but also invites us to ask questions about David Phillips. Indeed, one might ask, in view of the foregoing, what was Phillips doing during Oswald's visit and the subsequent exchange of cables with CIA HQ concerning Oswald's activities in Mexico?