What The Warren Commission Missed

Wall Street Journal

March 20, 2008

(Review Our Man in Mexico
By Jefferson Morley)

by Edward Jay Epstein

Within hours of President Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the CIA had established that Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged killer, had met with Cuban officials at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City eight weeks before. The CIA had also established that, four weeks after the meeting, Havana had approved a visa for Oswald, even though it normally did not grant visas to American citizens. At the time, Oswald was working under the alias “O.H. Lee” at the Texas Book Depository in Dallas.

Such facts obviously point toward the sinister possibility of foreign involvement in the Kennedy assassination—Cuban involvement. That two CIA sources independently reported seeing a Cuban official giving money to Oswald at Cuba's embassy in Mexico City only adds force to the possibility. And Castro himself had said, in the summer of 1963, that if American leaders continued “aiding plans to eliminate Cuban leaders . . . they themselves will not be safe.” As CIA officials knew, such U.S. “plans”—i.e., the CIA's efforts to assassinate Castro—had continued up to the day of the Kennedy assassination.

So when the Mexican federal police, after the Kennedy assassination, arrested a female employee of the Cuba consulate who had been in contact with Oswald, the CIA suggested that the Mexicans hold her incommunicado. The agency also suggested that they ask her such questions as: “Was the assassination of President Kennedy planned by Fidel Castro . . . and were the final details worked out inside the Cuban Embassy?” Thomas Mann, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, alerted Washington that there might be an indictable case against Cuban officials.

Little wonder, then, that the Warren Commission—put together within days of Kennedy's death to investigate the assassination—asked the CIA to provide it with everything the agency had regarding Oswald's activies in Mexico. The commission dispatched its top staff members to Mexico to meet with Ambassador Mann and Winston Scott, the CIA's station chief there. But nothing ever came of this Cuban connection. As we know, the Warren Commision, in its final report, determined that Oswald acted alone. What happened?

For one thing, the CIA had changed its tune by the time the Warren Commission staff members got to Mexico. The agency now claimed that it had learned of Oswald's activities in Mexico long after the assassination, by way of the FBI, and that stories about a Cuban official giving money to Oswald did not hold up. The Warren Commission concluded that there was no credible evidence of Cuban involvement.

Years later, thanks to congressional investigations, it emerged that the CIA had not been forthcoming with the Warren Commission about what it knew of Oswald's Mexican activities. Jefferson Morley's “Our Man In Mexico” brilliantly explores the mystery of this reticence. Though Mr. Morley is a dogged investigative reporter, he has not discovered any jaw-dropping evidence that will change forever the way we think about the Kennedy assassination, but he uncovers enough new material, and theorizes with such verve, that “Our Man in Mexico” will go down as one of the more provocative titles in the ever-growing library of Kennedy-assassination studies.

The book begins as a straightforward biography of Winston Scott, the CIA station chief in Mexico City in the early 1960s. It is an enthralling account of Scott's career as one of America's most accomplished spy masters. Mr. Morley memorably depicts not only of Scott's espionage exploits, from London in World War II to Mexico City at the height of the Cold War, but also his complicated love life and his ambitions as a poet.

“Our Man in Mexico” moves onto murkier ground as it explores Oswald's movements in Mexico City during Scott's tenure there. But Mr. Morley has succeeded in ferreting out a wealth of CIA documents that reveal lapses, misreporting and destroyed evidence. He maintains that the CIA once possessed photographs of Oswald entering the Cuban embassy and audiotapes of wiretaps that picked up Oswald's conversations with Cuban officials. The evidence is missing, he says; in fact, the disappearance of so much material has led him to conclude that Winston Scott “perpetrated a wide-ranging coverup of CIA operations around Oswald.” But why would Scott have done it?

Mr. Morley advances the theory that the CIA had to cover up an “operation” of its own that employed Oswald. While that theory might explain the holes in the record he encountered, Mr. Morley offers no evidence that such an operation ever existed. Instead he resorts to dredging up the “tantalizing” outline for a proposed novel by an ex-CIA officer in which a character working for the CIA recruits Oswald to assassinate Castro. Using fiction to make a factual argument is dubious enough, but what makes this exercise particularly absurd is the identity of the aspiring novelist: David Atlee Phillips, who testified repeatedly under oath to Congress that he did not know of any CIA plots involving Oswald.

There are of course more mundane explanations for the gaps in the CIA's surveillance of Oswald. Consider, for example, the agency's inability to produce photographs of Oswald entering the Cuban diplomatic compound in late September 1963, when eyewitnesses attested to his presence there. Mr. Morley shows that if Oswald used the public entrance to the embassy, he almost certainly would have been photographed by the CIA. So he concludes the CIA hid the evidence.

But what if Oswald had entered through the embassy's back garage, which was not covered by the CIA camera? As it turns out, two other investigators, Wilfried Huismann and Gus Russo, researching for their documentary “Rendezvous With Death,” tracked down the guard who was on duty at the garage back then. He recalled seeing Oswald in the garage, explaining that he would have noted the outsider's presence since Oswald was accompanied by a Cuban intelligence officer.

Winston Scott was naturally aware that the CIA's surveillance cameras could be avoided by using the embassy's nonpublic entrances. After the assassiation, why didn't he investigate the reasons behind such limited observation of the site at a time when Oswald was being tracked? My own guess is that Scott realized that a consensus had been reached in Washington according to which Oswald had acted alone, without foreign assistance; in short, there was no need to pursue that avenue of inquiry. He probably also realized that opening up the Cuban angle would lead to embarrassing revelations about the CIA's earlier operations against Castro. In other words, he acted like a bureaucrat by protecting the government's secrets.

As with so many of tangents in the history of the Kennedy assassination, the record of Oswald's activities in Mexico City is so spotty that we likely will never know what really happened there and can only speculate. Scott supposedly wrote a memoir in which he refuted the Warren Commission's conclusions. But shortly after he died in 1971, the manuscript disappeared—at the instruction, Mr. Morley suggests, of CIA Director Richard Helms. Maybe it will surface one day.


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