Saturday, February 11, 2012

Now, Finally -- Who Really Did Murder JFK? IV


So here we are, closing in on it, tiptoeing deeper and deeper into The Heart of Darkness.  This week I want to take a closer look at Lee Harvey Oswald, who was either the primary perpetrator or peripheral to the JFK assassination, depending on which camp you've managed to join at this point. Either the solitary demonic shooter or a fall guy caught up in the assassination.

The flunkies who drafted the Warren Commission Report tended to treat Oswald as some kind of twitchy obsessive, extremely unstable, a low-rent cultural drifter who acted on impulse that day in Dallas to claim his place in history.  All this bears very little resemblance to what becomes apparent upon a careful examination of Oswald's authentic biography.  To anybody familiar with the processes through which the intelligence community develops its assets, Oswald's undercover history probably begins with his months as a Marine stationed at the U.S. Naval Facility outside Atsugi, Japan, from where the U-2s that overflew the Soviet Union originated.  Half-educated, highly neurotic, Oswald abruptly developed such an interest in Russia that he buckled down and picked up this very difficult language in his off-hours, arranged for an early discharge -- not an easy thing to get during the Cold-War fifties -- and defected by way of Helsinki, proclaiming to the English-language press once he had made his way to Moscow that he had a lot of U-2 technology to share with the Soviets.

This was an era when the CIA was scratching around somewhat desperately for whatever it could find out about the "denied areas," the Soviet Union especially.  CIA Counterintelligence, overseen by James J. Angleton, had a defector-redefector program designed to infiltrate people into Russia and then bring them back with whatever they could pick up.  Jane Roman, who helped run this arrangement, indicated to me when I was researching The Old Boys that Oswald had participated. Interestingly, after flagrantly announcing that he was in Moscow to sell out vital American secrets, Oswald was permitted by U.S. authorities to come back immediately when largely on a whim he decided to, no fuss at all.

Back in the United States Oswald  skipped from job to job in Texas while establishing a close working relationship with that mysterious Baltic Baron George de Mohrenschild, an important CIA asset in the Domestic Contact Program.  By the spring and summer of 1963 his handlers had obviously decided that Oswald was ready to play a more meaningful part here.  He turned up in New Orleans -- where Oswald had grown up and where his uncle, "Dutz" Murret, was an important functionary in the Carlos Marcello branch of the Cosa Nostra.  According to the CIA case officer who ran him, Hunter Leake, Oswald helped out with CIA training operations on Lake Pontchartrain while doubling as an agent provocateur around The Big Easy, promoting his Fair Play for Cuba Committee.  I have gone deeply into all of this in the text and the second-edition expanded notes for Bobby and J. Edgar.

Back in the Dallas area Oswald seems to have bounced around throughout that fateful summer and fall of 1963.  I interviewed Ruth Paine, a no-nonsense Quaker lady who sublet an apartment to Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, and their daughter on the Paine property on the outskirts of Dallas; as the fall wore on Oswald rented an in-town place near the Texas Schoolbook Depository, where he had started a job.  The previous summer Ruth Paine, concerned about Marina's well-being, had visited the Oswalds in their squalid little flat in New Orleans.  Like so many others, Ruth found Oswald abrupt, hard to track, difficult to mother, and utterly self-interested.  She remembered him toying with the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle he is so often pictured holding, and in the end she concluded that Oswald was indeed involved in the shooting of John Kennedy.

In all probability he was, one way or another.  A scenario was quite clearly being worked up with Lee Harvey Oswald in a major role.  Whichever interests were masterminding the event regarded Oswald as available, serviceable.  The key here was creating a persona -- not always populated by the tangible Oswald  -- who would seem to be taking a series of steps that would leave him convincingly in position to fire a weapon out the sixth-floor window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository while John Kennedy was passing below.  Thus it became convenient to generate one or more stand-ins, quasi-Oswalds, to sign Oswald's nom-de-guerre, Alek Hidell, at the post office for delivery of the identifiable weapon, or storm around Mexico City to enlist a Soviet assassination specialist, or show up at a soiree for revenge-seeking Cubans.  As with so many Agency operations, the important thing at that stage was to flesh out the back story.

A great deal of important detail comes through in the extensive private investigation of the JFK killing undertaken by a Dutch businessman, Willem Dankbaar, who hired three veteran FBI retirees to track down anybody implicated in the tragedy and sort the whole thing out.  The great find was James Files, already implicated in books by the Giancana family, finishing out a full life of inspired bloodletting in the Illinois State penetentiary.  Long a dependable button man for the Outfit, Files claimed to have fired the hollow-point bullet from the Grassy Knoll that blew Kennedy's brains out. 

As interesting to assassination buffs was Files' rendition of events during the week preceding the shooting.  Files maintained that he had been flown into Dallas from Chicago and squired around the city by Oswald, who Files knew in any case after collaborating with him earlier in the year running submachine guns to the Cuban resistance.  Oswald supposedly took Files to a rifle range to sharpen up his eye and recommended the vantage point on the Grassy Knoll. Then Files drove Johnny Rosselli --  flown into Fort Worth by a regular CIA pilot, Robert "Tosh" Plumlee -- to a meeting in a Fort Worth Pancake House with Jack Ruby.

Another of those borderline-underworld types so useful to the Agency who showed up in Dallas was Chauncy Holt. Also a dependable pilot, Holt procured the Secret Service badges-of-the-day flashed by the ersatz Secret Service operatives who shooed away the curious from the Grassy Knoll before and after the muzzle flash there.  A lot of technical talent had started to materialize in Dallas that week.

Everybody had his contribution.  Part of Oswald's utility stemmed from his enhanced -- and deniable -- background as low-level functionary for several federal agencies.  Apart from what by 1963 had turned into a wide-ranging assortment of  covert chores for CIA, Oswald had been picking up a regular paycheck as an FBI informant.  Stymied in his efforts to conduct a proper state investigation of the Kennedy assassination -- police paraffin tests had revealed that Lee Harvey Oswald hadn't fired a rifle the day of the shooting -- Texas Attorney General Waggoner Carr -- see Wikipedia -- would testify before the Warren Commission that "Oswald was working as an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and received $200 a month from September 1962 until his death in November 1963."  Hoover shrugged his shoulders, and denied everything.

By then, of course, what had probably been intended and what had happened that noontime in Dallas had diverged, catastrophically.  The game of creating a pretext for invading Cuba had turned in moments into the game of bureaucratic survival.  Lee Harvey Oswald would be the first to be sacrificed.

For chapter and verse, there will be another installment.  Wait!

Burton Hersh

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