The New JFK Files Reveal How the CIA Tracked Oswald

Agency personnel read his mail in Russia and observed his activities in New Orleans.

Photo Credit: WDSU

The latest batch of JFK assassination files, released December 15, illuminate a story that the CIA still denies: the surveillance of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the years before he shot and killed President John F. Kennedy.

Two files corroborate what the CIA continues to obfuscate to this day: the early interest of the Agency’s counterintelligence staff in Oswald, a former Marine Corp radio operator who lived in the Soviet Union and publicly agitated for a pro-Castro group in New Orleans in late 1963.

“For decades, debate has raged not only over whether Oswald acted alone but whether the FBI and CIA could have stopped him. The latest documents provide fresh proof that he was in their sights,” reported the Dallas Morning News.

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The CIA started intercepting and reading Oswald’s mail in November 1959, just days after he defected to the Soviet Union, according to a declassified Senate memo. The mail intercept program, run by counterintelligence chief James Angleton, opened and copied Oswald’s correspondence from Nov. 11, 1959, to May 3, 1960, and again from Aug. 7, 1961, to May 28, 1962.

The CIA captured several letters from Oswald’s mother, which were copied and filed by Angleton’s staff. The mail surveillance was discontinued when Oswald returned to the United States in June 1962.

But the CIA continued to monitor Oswald’s actions through late 1963. A previously released memo shows that nine CIA and FBI documents about Oswald were delivered to Angleton’s staff between September and November 1963. Those reports concerned Oswald’s pro-Castro political activities in New Orleans, his arrest for fighting with CIA-funded Cubans, his propensity to beat his wife, and his contacts with presumed Soviet and Cuban intelligence officers in Mexico City.

In a piece for the Washington Decoded blog, David Robarge, chief historian for the CIA, downplayed the significance of Angleton’s surveillance of Oswald.

"The US government did not have actionable information that Oswald was a clear threat to the President before 22 November 1963,” Robarge wrote.

Historians and journalists, he cautioned, “must fairly assess why people acted based on what they knew at the time and not make judgments about what they could or should have done because of how events played out.”

The new documents enable the public to see what Angleton and other senior CIA officers knew at the time about Oswald—and it was far more than they shared with colleagues while Kennedy was still alive.

Based on the mail surveillance and the contents of Oswald’s file in mid-October 1963, Angleton could have told colleagues at the CIA and FBI that Oswald was a violent leftist who was active in a pro-Castro organization, had lived in the Soviet Union and had contacted a KGB officer who might have been an assassin. Those facts certainly qualified as “actionable information,” yet Angleton took no action.

As I recently reported in the Daily Beast, Angleton’s office was even informed by the FBI on Nov. 15, 1963, that Oswald had returned from Mexico and was living in Dallas. Again, Angleton took no action.

Seven days later, President Kennedy was dead and Lee Harvey Oswald was in custody as the chief suspect. Oswald denied killing Kennedy, calling himself a "patsy." Oswald was killed in police custody the next day by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, igniting conspiratorial suspicions that have never gone away.

‘Anti-Castro Forces Involved’

A former CIA agent told a House investigator he observed Oswald in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 and did not believe he was responsible for killing Kennedy, according to partially declassified interview notes.

In 1975, William Gaudet, the editor of a newsletter on Latin American public affairs, told Bernard Fensterwald of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, that he combined his publishing business with CIA assignments from 1947 to 1969.  

“Gaudet said he never met Oswald, only that he observed him on occasion.…he described him as a miserable little creature who would do anything for money,” Fensterwald wrote. “Believed he was being financed by someone.”

Gaudet “doubts if he could have pulled off the rifle fire in Dealey Plaza as LHO was terribly nervous and disorganized,” Fensterwald reported.

“As to JFK slaying [he] believes Warren Report is a fairy story which shall come completely unglued very soon,” Fensterwald wrote. “Believes anti-Castro forces involved.”

Other files released last week buttress Gaudet’s claim that he worked for the CIA. The agency paid Gaudet for "discussions up to the level of Secret information" in the early 1950s, according to one memo. Another memo shows that in 1962, Gaudet’s business partner offered the CIA a "cover position in his firm’s office in Panama," but does not say whether the offer was accepted.

Gaudet said CIA officer (and future Watergate burglar) E. Howard Hunt “knows more about Dallas than any other person he can think of.” He said Hunt was "God” to the anti-Castro Cubans.

In a 1975 interview with investigators, also made public December 15, Hunt conceded he was “bitter” about JFK’s Cuba policy, but denied any involvement in Kennedy’s assassination.

In 2004, Hunt told his son that some of his CIA colleagues were involved in a JFK assassination conspiracy, which he called “the big event.” Hunt died in 2007.

What It Means

The new JFK files shed more light on how the CIA monitored Oswald’s travels, his politics and his personal life for four years before JFK’s assassination. The files show how the CIA ought to hide the details of pre-assassination interest in Oswald from the public and investigators, lending credence to the notion that the JFK investigation was "controlled, not botched."

And they illuminate the continuing secrecy around CIA operations in New Orleans in 1963. While most of Gaudet’s comments are now public, the real name of the chief of the CIA’s New Orleans office 50 years ago is still redacted in the public version of the document. This extraordinary secrecy, while curious if not suspicious, remains the norm when it comes to JFK files.

In 2003, I sued the CIA for the records of a CIA undercover officer, George Joannides, who funded the anti-Castro group that fought with Oswald and who maintained a residence in New Orleans. The CIA identified 280 records responsive to my lawsuit that have never been released—for reasons of “national security."

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Jefferson Morley is a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the editor the JFK Facts blog and author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press). Follow him on Twitter @JeffersonMorley.