True Spies, Episode 171 - The Oswald Project, Part One: From Russia With Love
++Content Warning: This episode contains references to suicide.++
NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Daisy Ridley, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios. The Oswald Project, Part One: From Russia With Love.
JOHN NEWMAN: Spy fishing is just like fly fishing. You have to know what lures to use in a certain area of the rivers and if the fish don't snap at it, you change the lure till you find one they like.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: People in the CIA were far, far, far more interested in Lee Harvey Oswald than they ever told the Warren Commission.
NARRATOR: On November 22, 1963, gunshots rang out in Dealey Plaza, downtown Dallas, Texas. Two men were hit by the bullets as their motorcade drove through the cheering crowds who’d shown up to catch a glimpse. One of them, Texas Governor John Connally, was hit in the chest, ribs, and arm. The other man was hit in the throat and head. He was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States of America. Connally survived his wounds, but 30 minutes after the shooting, The president was pronounced dead. One hour later, a 24-year-old man named Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested inside a movie theater on suspicion of killing a police officer. Investigators quickly discovered that Oswald was an employee of the Texas School Book Depository, a warehouse that overlooked the street where Kennedy was shot. A rifle belonging to Oswald was found at the site. He immediately became the prime suspect in the investigation into Kennedy’s death. Within two days, Oswald would himself be assassinated. The last words he uttered before dying? “I’m just a patsy.” Let’s go back. It’s 1959, four years before Kennedy’s death, and Lee Harvey Oswald walks into the US Embassy in Moscow and announces…
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: [AI-generated]: I have decided to take Soviet citizenship and would like to legally dissolve my US citizenship.
NARRATOR: The 20-year-old Oswald is stiff and aggressive. To those in the room, his words feel prepared, like he’s making a speech he’s learned by heart. Given that the office is bugged by Russian Intelligence, there is every chance he is speaking as much for this hidden audience as he is to the US consular official, Richard Snyder. But then Oswald does something even more unexpected; something that, when you think about it, is extraordinary. He tells Snyder - the US Consul - that he has recently served as a radio operator in the Marine Corps and that he is prepared to share the classified information obtained while on active duty with Soviet intelligence. If Oswald’s speech was really aimed at an eavesdropping KGB audience, this would have made them sit up and pay attention. It’s the height of the Cold War and Lee Harvey Oswald has just announced to both US and Soviet authorities that he is willing to share intelligence from a top-secret spy program with the enemy.
JOHN NEWMAN: When Oswald goes over there and starts talking about this stuff, he's going to light up like a Christmas tree.
NARRATOR: In case you missed the significance of this moment, just four years before the assassination of JFK, Oswald firmly put himself on the radar of the US security agencies only to slip past their attention and end up holding the rifle that most believe fired the fatal shots that killed the president. This week’s true spy is, without question, one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures of the 20th century. In the 60 years since that fateful day in Dallas, the name Lee Harvey Oswald has been the focal point of conspiracy theory, alleged cover-up, and a media storm of speculation and fantasy that has rarely, if ever, abated. But who was the real Oswald? Was he a lone assassin? Was he the innocent ‘patsy’ he claimed to be, an intelligence stooge set up by shadowy figures to look like a lone assassin, framed for a crime he didn’t commit? Or was he something altogether more insidious? A deep-cover agent of the security services - a piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle of espionage, betrayal, and treason? Over the next two episodes, True Spies will lead you through this labyrinth to unravel the story of the man who has bewitched and frustrated historians for over half a century. This is the story of what the CIA was to name ‘The Oswald Project.’ Guiding us through are two of the most renowned Kennedy assassination experts in the world. Professor John Newman, whose background is in military intelligence, has been studying Oswald and his links to the CIA for over 30 years. He was also a key advisor in the making of the blockbuster film JFK.
JOHN NEWMAN: They needed to find somebody who was malleable and would do just exactly what he was told and nothing else.
NARRATOR: Accompanying Newman is Jefferson Morley, renowned Washington author and investigative journalist.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: After Oliver Stone's movie, Congress passes the JFK Records Act. I start paying attention. That's when I met John Newman. And it was like, there's a ton of stuff that's going to come into the public record here and, whatever it is, it's going to be pretty interesting.
NARRATOR: Another voice you’ll hear in this episode is Oswald himself. The words are all Oswald’s - taken from what he called his ‘historic diary’ and letters published by the Warren Commission, the official account of Kennedy’s assassination. So, where were we? 1959. The US Embassy, Moscow. Following his interview with Consul Snyder, Oswald returns to Room 233 at Moscow’s Hotel Metropole, where he’s been staying for the last few days.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I leave the embassy, elated at this showdown, returning to my hotel. I feel now my energies are not spent in vain. I'm sure Russians will accept me after this sign of my faith in them.
NARRATOR: Oswald is right. The Russians grant him a one-year visa and move him to the city of Minsk, where he is installed in luxury apartments and given a job in a radio factory. He’s finally made it. But his journey to being accepted by the Soviet authorities hasn’t been as easy as it seems. In the official biography of Oswald, published by the Warren Commission in 1964, we were told that he arrived in Moscow on October 16, 1959. Furnished with a six-day tourist visa, he quickly informed his tour guide that he wanted to defect.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: She is flabbergasted, but agrees to help. She checks with her boss… then helps me add a letter to the supervisor asking for citizenship. Meanwhile, boss telephones passport and visa office and notifies them about me.
NARRATOR: On October 21, Oswald is summoned to the Moscow tourist visa department.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: Meet with single official. Good English, asks what I want. I say Soviet citizenship. He tells me ‘USSR only great in literature, wants me to go back home.’
NARRATOR: His request for political asylum is rejected and he is ordered to leave the country by 8 pm that day.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I am shocked. My dreams. I retire to my room.
NARRATOR: His hopes shattered over the course of a few minutes, Oswald does something desperate.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: 7 pm. I decide to end it. Soak wrist in cold water to numb the pain. Then slash my left wrist.
NARRATOR: Oswald is discovered in the bath by his tourist guide, Rimma Sherikov. She calls for assistance and Oswald is transferred to a hospital for treatment before being moved to a psychiatric ward. Just one week later, Oswald is standing in Consul Snyder’s office, boldly announcing that he is going to share top-secret US intelligence with the Russians. Oswald scholars have asked the question: was this a real suicide attempt? Or something staged for effect to convince Snyder and the eavesdropping KGB of his value as an asset, of a man who will do anything to defect? But here’s the thing, defectors don’t usually inform the side they are deserting of their intentions. So what was Oswald’s play here? To answer this, we need to address two important aspects of Oswald’s tale. First, we need to go back and learn more about how - and why - this young defector was so determined to make his way to the Soviet Union. And then we need to look in more detail at what happened next. Okay, let’s start with the hard facts. Oswald was born in New Orleans in 1939. From that moment forward, his biography is riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies. We know that his father died two months before his birth. We know his mother struggled to raise him and his older brothers. By the time he was three, Oswald had been sent to an orphanage. When he was 12, Oswald’s mother moved the family to New York. The FBI claims he went to Trinity Evangelical School in the Bronx but, curiously, the school has no record of him. Only one photo survives of Oswald from this time, though his brother, John Pic, says it’s not him. Oswald often skipped school and his social worker described him as ‘emotionally frozen’. Yet he was assessed at the same time as ‘outstanding’ in ‘social participation’. On reading Oswald’s self-titled ‘historic diary’, the writer Norman Mailer claimed that Oswald was dyslexic. We also know this: in his ninth-grade assessments, Oswald was recorded as scoring high in reading and vocabulary. And his mother described him as an avid reader, neither of which suggests dyslexia. He also taught himself Russian, and depending on whose testimony you rely on, was reported as more than proficient. A photo of Oswald with a missing tooth surfaced at auction after his death, allegedly taken by a friend. But when Oswald was buried, he had a full set of teeth. Didn’t I tell you Oswald’s story was full of holes? Here’s another: Oswald’s mental instability and volatility have been well documented. But TV and radio interviews from 1963 confirm him as articulate, informed, and focused. He was, in short, an enigma. A clear portrait of what the young Oswald was really like is therefore hard to establish. We do know that from an early age he was troubled by the world’s injustices. He told a friend many years later that as a teenager he turned to the writings of Karl Marx for solutions to the corruption and unfairness, particularly the racism, he felt sat at the heart of American society. These are political sensibilities that, interestingly, would seem to align Oswald with the political agenda of the progressive John F. Kennedy more than set our true spy against the president-to-be. Owing to his ongoing, excessive truancy, Oswald was registered with the New York State courts. But in January 1954, he broke the terms of his parole and moved with his mother back to New Orleans. At age 15, Oswald joined the New Orleans Civil Air Patrol where he encountered a man called David Ferrie. Ferrie was a notorious right-winger and rabid anti-communist. In 1967 Ferrie was implicated in an alleged conspiracy to kill Kennedy but he took his own life before he could face his accusers. Though Ferrie denied ever having any involvement with Oswald, a photo emerged of them together, taken in the early 1950s.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: He was definitely seen with David, with David Ferrie. And that was reported by other federal agents in New Orleans.
NARRATOR: If Oswald’s friendship with Ferrie was real, why was a committed Marxist hanging out with a man with fascist sympathies? This, as we shall see, is just another of the multiple contradictions that characterize this story because it was clear that Oswald’s devotion to leftist politics was strong. At around the same time - he met Ferrie when he was 16 - Oswald wrote to the American Socialist Party requesting to join their youth league.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I would like to know if there is a branch in my area, how to join. I am a Marxist and have been studying socialist principles for well over 15 months.
NARRATOR: Oswald’s next move after the New Orleans Civil Air Patrol was to join the US Marines - not the obvious choice for a man who believed in ending US economic and military imperialism. While in training, Oswald excelled at marksmanship, achieving ‘sharp shooter’ status. He attended radar school before being posted to Atsugi, Japan, as a radio controller in 1956. His continuing evangelism for Marxism earned him the nickname ‘Osvaldovich’. But here’s something interesting: while on active duty, he was allegedly photographed by Japanese police visiting the Russian Embassy. Just one of several photographs - rumored or real - of Lee Harvey Oswald that have come to light since his death. Many of them, though, show signs of being either faked or manipulated. One photo from this time shows him standing, ghost-like, in the background while famous Hollywood actor John Wayne eats lunch with the Marines during a morale-boosting visit. In Atsugi, Oswald came into direct contact with the infamous U-2 spy plane program. These aircraft were running critical CIA intelligence sorties into Russia to establish Soviet nuclear capabilities. He also came into contact with agents charged with recruiting opposition to the recent victor of the revolution in Cuba - Fidel Castro. Remember this detail, it’s going to be important. So emerges another pattern in Oswald’s story: wherever he finds himself, Secret Service agents and double agents are rarely far away. It was Oswald’s detailed knowledge of the U-2 spy plane intelligence program that was uppermost in his mind that day when he approached the US Embassy on October 31, 1959. But by the time he arrived in Russia just a couple of weeks earlier, several remarkable things had already happened to support the idea that his defection was being guided by the hand of the intelligence agencies. But which one, the KGB or the CIA? As Jefferson Morely explains…
JEFFERSON MORLEY: So in the fall of 1959. Lee Oswald leaves the Marines saying he wants to take care of his mother and he gets a less than honorable discharge, but he is discharged. And, within a month, he travels to Europe, to Helsinki, and then into the Soviet Union. This is an impressive feat and a testimony to Oswald's intelligence and abilities.
NARRATOR: In fact, it defies probability. Oswald had no money at the time and yet somehow managed to get his hands on $200 to pay for his trip. His first stop, Helsinki, was known in intelligence circles as a city where fast visas to the USSR could be obtained.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: If he had gone through Berlin or London or anyplace else, he would not have been able to get into the Soviet Union quickly at all.
NARRATOR: So how did Oswald know to travel via Helsinki? For John Newman, who has spent decades poring over the evidence, the answer is simple:
JOHN NEWMAN: He was an agent for the Ukrainian KGB.
NARRATOR: Ukraine, in 1959, was still very much part of the Soviet Union. But if what Newman says is true, then why did Oswald have to go to such lengths to be admitted to the USSR? Newman is convinced that Oswald’s defection was a piece of an elaborate Cold War jigsaw puzzle, one designed to expose a traitor, a mole, believed to be operating deep within the CIA. After the defections of notorious British traitors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, super-spy Kim Philby had been forced to resign from MI6 on suspicion of being a third agent sending intelligence to the Russians. Unsurprisingly, the revelation that the KGB had infiltrated the upper ranks of the spy community sent reverberations across the Western hemisphere. If MI6 had been infiltrated, why not the CIA? Good Soviet intelligence was extremely hard to come by back then, and the last thing the CIA needed was for what scant information they had to be leaked back to the enemy.
JOHN NEWMAN: But you have to understand that when you have a mole, a high-echelon mole, you own the service. In other words, the KGB owns the CIA. They own MI6.
NARRATOR: Finding the rumored mole was critical to the West’s efforts to win the Cold War. It also became an obsession in some quarters of the CIA. Given that secrecy and subterfuge are the currency of intelligence agencies, rumors can often neither be proven nor disproven. It’s not as if these traitors leave a calling card. A mole hunt was commissioned to root out the mole. However, in a twist worthy of a le Carré novel, Newman is convinced that the mole hunt was unsuccessful. And the reason? Because it was initiated by none other than the mole himself. And not long after the mole hunt is initiated, Oswald strides into the US Consul’s office threatening to make contact with the KGB. So how are the two connected?
JOHN NEWMAN: Oswald did not need to be kept there very long. In fact, he did his job with the script that they gave him going over there.
NARRATOR: In Newman’s analysis, Oswald’s defection was set up and stage-managed by the CIA mole-turned-mole-hunter to throw the US intelligence agencies off the scent. But if the mole was pulling the strings, then of course Oswald’s entire mission - and any intelligence gathered from it - could have been bogus. Sending Oswald to Russia, therefore, could have been an elaborate ruse to bury the real mole’s identity for good. Newman’s original suspect for the mole was a man called James Jesus Angleton.
JOHN NEWMAN: As long as I can remember in JFK research and the Oswald story, his defection and attempt to re-defect again, it was all revolving around somebody we thought was a genius, the counterintelligence chief of the CIA, James Jesus Angleton.
NARRATOR: Angleton had been in regular contact with the British spy Kim Philby throughout the time Philby was sending intelligence to Moscow.
JOHN NEWMAN: He blew all the CIA's top secrets to Kim Philby for years.
NARRATOR: But Newman is now convinced that Angleton - who will remain a key figure in our Oswald story - was not the real traitor.
JOHN NEWMAN: He was a daddy's boy who needed somebody to actually validate what he was saying,
NARRATOR: It was only when Newman went back to the travel records of another CIA operative, he found what he was looking for.
JOHN NEWMAN: There's only one way a mole at the very tip of an agency - of a spy service - can safely talk to his masters in Moscow. And that's face-to-face. You've got to travel. And that's also the Achilles heel.
NARRATOR: In other words, if you examine the travel records of CIA agents, they can tell you a lot more than other official documents or denials.
JOHN NEWMAN: And oh my God, look what I missed. Solie's travel records. And there it was. Every time he went, he didn't want to travel unless he absolutely had to. Because every time he went someplace, there was a KGB, a very significant KGB problem, at that spot.
NARRATOR: Bruce Solie, an American World War II fighter-bomber who had been radicalized by the far left at university. When Philby’s role as top Soviet agent was compromised, Solie was drafted to be his replacement by the KGB. Solie then joined the CIA’s Office Of Security, the department responsible for overseeing internal security within the agency.
JOHN NEWMAN: Basically what we're dealing with here is a battle of the spy services that the KGB was in charge of. And we have had a problem. That their star player, Philby, wasn't going to make it too much longer. And so I believe that the evidence shows Bruce Solie was recruited very early and he sat there and did his job.
NARRATOR: The perfect position from which to commission a fake mole hunt.
JOHN NEWMAN: So who would have thought that the mole was the mole hunter.
NARRATOR: And Oswald was his decoy. Newman’s theory is backed up by other factors. But now we need to circle back once more to Oswald’s time in Minsk. It’s time to peel off the next layer of this extraordinary tale. Minsk, now the capital of Belarus, was then the headquarters of the notorious KGB training school.
JOHN NEWMAN: Everybody knew about it, by the way. It was the center of the town. Located near Victory Square in the center of Minsk, along the main thoroughfare to a beautiful park along the Svislach River.
NARRATOR: It seems more than just a coincidence that Oswald was posted there after his defection. Remember, he had not been granted leave to remain. He was still on a one-year visitor’s visa. But, as Oswald’s historic diary reveals, rather than the aloof loner of legend, he made friends and had a number of relationships with women.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: Now, everyone is very friendly and kind. I meet many young Russian workers my age. They have varied personalities, all wish to know about me.
NARRATOR: It’s unthinkable that Oswald would not have come into contact with cadets from the KGB school.
JOHN NEWMAN: Every morning after roll call, all the student cadets in this KGB school will go for a six-kilometer run right past Oswald's apartment building
NARRATOR: Perhaps Oswald was one of them, as Newman claims? After all, the Russian authorities were paying him handsomely to stay - with the Red Cross apparently supplementing his income every month.
JOHN NEWMAN: And what a lot of people don't know is those guys that were interviewing Oswald were in fact KGB officers masquerading as, working as… Red Cross or whatever. We know who they were. We know their names.
NARRATOR: However, if Oswald’s account of things is to be believed, his exposure to life in communist Russia was not enamoring him to this way of organizing society. It was having the reverse effect. For a man so bewitched by the Marxist-communist ideology, it appears that the signals Oswald gave off once he was established in the USSR did not suggest loyalty to his new homeland. One of Oswald’s Russian friends, Ernst Titovets, wrote in his memoir of their heated conversations comparing life in the East versus the West.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Titovets thought it was amusing that people thought Oswald was this big Red. He said, “In our arguments I took the socialist side, I defended the socialist system and he defended the West.’
NARRATOR: It looks like Oswald was beginning to get buyer’s remorse.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I am starting to reconsider my desire about staying. The work is drab, the money I get has no way to be spent. As my Russian improves, I become increasingly conscious of just what sort of a society I live in.
NARRATOR: By this time, Oswald had met and fallen in love with a young girl named Marina Pruskova. After six weeks they were married. But with a baby soon on the way, Oswald seemed to possess little desire to raise a child in the Soviet Union. And here comes the next twist in the Oswald story. Two years after his initial defection, Oswald returns to the US Embassy in Moscow. In a bizarre rerun of his original meeting, he attempts to reverse his position as a traitor, denying he betrayed secrets to the Russians, and pleading for his US citizenship to be restored. If Oswald is part of a CIA-sponsored counterintelligence operation, it is either being wound up or has failed. Alternatively, if Oswald, as Newman claims, is a genuine defector now working for the Russians, is he being sent back to the US as a KGB spy? Remember, Newman also claims Oswald’s initial meeting with the US consul was staged for effect by double agent Solie and his Russian masters. It would follow that this second encounter was also scripted for the benefit of eavesdroppers listening in.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I received a letter from Immigration Service at San Antonio, Texas, that Marina has had her visa petition to the US (Approved!!). The last document. Now we only have to wait for the US Embassy to receive their copy of the approval so they can officially give the go-ahead.
NARRATOR: And now, the spy is coming back to America.
JOHN NEWMAN: It came time to bring him home. And they did.
NARRATOR: But whose spy is he, really? Oswald has been granted permission to return to America after two years living in Minsk where it’s alleged he’s been trained by the KGB. He walked into the same consular office he did when he told them he made a mistake and wants to come home. And bizarrely, they’ve let him back in.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I now have a US passport in my possession. I am given a totally new resident's pass called, ‘Pass for Foreigners’ and since they have given us permission to leave, good until July 5, 1962.
NARRATOR: What did the US intelligence agencies back home make of his actions? How were the CIA and FBI responding to his threatened betrayal of vital U-2 spy plane intelligence to the KGB? And why did they let him back? Remember, in just over a year, Kennedy would be dead. Remember too that the official investigation into the Kennedy assassination, the Warren Commission, which published its findings in September 1964, concluded that there was no conspiracy to kill the president. The American public was told that Oswald acted “alone and unaided”. So what was the CIA’s role in all this? They were consulted, after all. The Warren Commission’s conclusion was based in part on the testimonies of CIA Director Richard Helms and Director of Intelligence John McCone. Jefferson Morely picks up the thread.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: John McCone and Dick Helms told the Warren Commission under oath that the CIA didn't have a lot of information about Oswald. Helms said it was probably minimal.
NARRATOR: From several further inquiries and the partial declassification of documents since then, we now know the opposite is true. When the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act was passed in 1992, six million pieces of paper were released for public scrutiny. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but a legion of committed researchers finally found what they were looking for. Amid the declassified files, a substantial intelligence-monitoring operation of Oswald was discovered - an operation dating back to before Oswald’s defection.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Well, if you see those 45 documents, it wasn't minimal. It was maximum. They knew where the guy was every step of the way for the previous four years where he lived. They received reports on him. They knew about his personal life. They knew about his political life. They were reading his mail.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: He's somebody who people in the CIA are very interested in, in knowing what he's doing, what he wants to do, where he's going.
NARRATOR: In other words, to state that they had ‘minimal’ intelligence was a blatant lie. What was the CIA hiding? Since Oswald’s defection, it has come to light that Richard Snyder, the American consul in Moscow, was himself a CIA agent. He officially served until 1950, but in 1968, the East German publication Who’s Who In The CIA, based on intelligence captured by the KGB, listed him as still active. If true, this would explain a lot. Many have commented that Snyder’s reaction to Oswald declaring his intentions to share details of the U-2 spy plane program was, well, muted to say the least.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I spend 40 minutes at the embassy before Snyder says, “Now unless you wish to expound on your Marxist beliefs, you can go."
NARRATOR: Hardly the reaction of a man who’d just received such a significant warning of a looming intelligence breach. But if Snyder was CIA, then his calm demeanor is more understandable. It appears that a critical decision had been taken by senior ranking officers to keep Oswald’s activities contained within a relatively small circle of influence. While Snyder did send a report on the defection back to HQ, Oswald’s intelligence file took a detour via the CIA’s Director Of Operations, James Jesus Angleton. And that’s where it stayed.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: So they're keeping very close track of him. And that's when Angleton, James Angleton, the chief of the counterintelligence staff, puts out to his people and says, “We want to read the mail of Oswald.”
NARRATOR: Information was being gathered, but it was disappearing into a black hole. Given that there were alerts triggered by events as banal as Oswald’s mother trying to wire him money, this information black-out defies belief. If ever there was evidence of a conspiracy, it’s here that it starts to solidify. And it solidifies around James Jesus Angleton
JEFFERSON MORLEY: That list of people was controlled by Angleton with contributions from the FBI. But Oswald immediately appears on that list. That's there's only a couple of hundred people, a couple of hundred names, on that list. So already Oswald is the object of attention at the very highest levels of the CIA.
NARRATOR: So was Angelton the mole after all? One further revelation from the declassification adds fuel to the conspiracy fire. When Oswald defected, CIA convention dictated that the Agency open what was called a 201 File. Between the years 1958 and 1960, there was an acceleration in defections to the Soviet Union. Many of them were disgruntled military personnel like Oswald. Each would have triggered a 201 File, a comprehensive record of the individual’s personal history. These files were critical in the monitoring of agents and double agents by the CIA.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: When Oswald first defected in 1959, the CIA did not open its standard file on him, a 201 File, a personality file. And that's typically what the CIA does when they get a bit of information about somebody. They open a personality file on them.
NARRATOR: At a time of an extensive mole hunt, up-to-date 201 Files would have been even more essential to track suspects. And yet no such file was opened on Oswald until 1960, over a year after his defection. Many of the ‘disenchanted’ military defectors were part of a program initiated by the Office for Naval Intelligence, the ONI. The scheme, which the KGB quickly became suspicious of, was to plant false defectors in the USSR in the hope that they would be recruited by Russian intelligence. If Oswald was one of these false defectors, does it explain why opening his 201 File was held back? Or was the personality file unnecessary, given that Snyder and Angleton were in on the act? If these senior CIA figures were conspiring to keep Oswald’s activities under the radar, it explains why other intelligence relating to his defection was so poorly circulated.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: If somebody wanted to know about Oswald within the CIA, they had to identify themselves to Angleton’s office.
NARRATOR: Adding yet more petrol to the flames, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, a review board set up in the late 1970s to reopen the Kennedy case, was denied access to CIA routing slips, which would have given a more comprehensive view of personnel with access to Oswald’s intelligence file. What did the CIA have to hide?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: So Angleton, I think, was looking for, “Hey, there's a defector, goes to the Soviet Union, let's see if somebody inside the building is interested in him because that might be the mole.”
NARRATOR: It could have been a policy dictated by Bruce Solie to cover his own tracks. It could have been an attempt by James Angleton to bluff the Russians, as Jefferson Morely suggests. Either way, it appears that the only credible explanation for holding back Oswald’s file was because he was part of this operation to root out the mole.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Access to the Oswald file was very carefully controlled by Angleton for four years before the assassination. That wasn't just some Joe who was of interest to the CIA. There were lots of those people, but their files were not controlled the way Oswald's file was controlled.
NARRATOR: In 1978, an ex-CIA accountant named James Wilcott came forward with what could be the missing clue to this riddle. Testifying under oath, Wilcott claimed he had been responsible for handling finances for what he referred to as the ‘Oswald Project’. We know this because he then leaked his testimony to The New York Times, which published the story in November of that year. The Project, Wilcott said, involved recruiting Oswald as a double agent so that he could penetrate KGB intelligence. If this was true, it would explain a lot - the mysterious source of Oswald’s financial support, his routing via Helsinki and his strange, almost scripted meeting with Snyder, declaring his intention to share secret intelligence. And it may also explain why, after years of fervent pro-communism, Oswald was now ready to state in no uncertain terms (according to a declassified US Embassy report filed at the time)...
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I have learned a hard lesson the hard way and have been completely relieved of my illusions about the Soviet Union.
NARRATOR: Many have since tried to discredit Wilcott’s claims. As ever with the Oswald story, in a world of disinformation and decoy, we may never know the truth. To this day, the CIA is still trying to stop the release of some of the files relating to Oswald and the assassination. Several thousand documents remain under lock and key. And despite the JFK Assassination Records Act being passed unanimously by Congress, the obstruction of full disclosure has been aided by successive presidents from both sides of the political divide. If Oswald really acted “alone and unaided”, what are they so afraid of us finding out? Was there a new spy mission waiting for Oswald on his return?
JOHN NEWMAN: Somebody told him, “This is what you're going to be doing.”
NARRATOR: Join us next week to find out.
Professor John M. Newman (pictured) spent 20 years with the US Army Intelligence and served in Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, and China. He eventually became executive assistant to the director of the National Security Agency. He was also also an adviser to Oliver Stone while he was making JFK and was one of the experts called upon to advise the JFK Assassination Records Review Board.
Author Jefferson Morley has worked in Washington journalism for more than 30 years, 15 of which were spent as an editor and reporter at The Washington Post.