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The latest JFK document release: A smoking gun, or did Oswald act alone?

The reticence of successive presidents to release classified JFK-assassination documents has fed conspiracy theories characterizing Lee Harvey Oswald as part of a conspiracy or the “patsy” he declared himself to be upon his arrest. The latest document dump by the National Archives raised hopes among conspiracy buffs of information that might implicate Cuba, the former Soviet Union, the Mafia, Big Oil, or some other sinister cabal in President Kennedy’s murder.

But conspiracy theorists are in for another disappointment. There is no smoking gun, not even a toy pistol, and most of the data we already knew. The documents show that Lee Harvey Oswald traveled to Mexico City not to receive instructions to kill JFK but to prepare for a new life in a Cuba. The documents capture Oswald as a master manipulator, planner and schemer, important qualifications for an assassin working alone.

Some 95 percent of the documents released on Dec. 15 are trivia, boilerplate or bureaucratese — a classic case of over-classification by the intelligence community. Did we really need to hide a 60-year-old secret deal with Mexico’s then-president to surveil the Soviet embassy? Or to redact names and sources of officials long dead? (On a personal note, why did the routine decision not to further interview my father, Pete Gregory, who knew and introduced me to Oswald, need to wait a half-century to be released?)

When put to simple “smell” tests, the dump’s more “incriminating” documents lack credibility. Consider the letter from a supposedly highly placed Cuban (dated Nov. 10, 1963, but registered a month later) addressed clumsily to “Lee Harvey Oswald, Mail Office, Dallas,” that praises him for his marksmanship and speaks of a payment in silver. We learn from an overheard restroom conversation of Havana chauffeurs that Castro ordered JFK killed; that Oswald was a trained KGB agent, we learn from a Warsaw embassy “walk-in” claiming Oswald worked with two past presidents to kill JFK.

Such examples demonstrate that it was not the National Archives’ duty to separate wheat from chaff. Instead, it dumped a huge cache of raw data from which to draw reasonable evidence-based conclusions.

Oswald’s visit to Mexico City, two months before the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, has long been a pivotal point for conspiracy-theorists. Oswald visited both the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City; in one or both, the theorists claim, he got his orders to kill JFK. In my book, “The Oswalds,” I provide the back story of this trip: At the time, the restless Oswald was in the process of creating a new persona as a Marxist organizer, keeping one step ahead of the FBI. As his disappointment with menial jobs mounted, Cuba beckoned for a new start. But visas were a problem; he needed a Soviet visa to get a transit visa for Cuba. The Soviet visa, however, would take months (and his wife, Marina, would have to travel to D.C. for an interview).

Oswald set his sights instead on the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City but first had to build up his pro-Castro credentials. While still in Dallas, Oswald informed a skeptical Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) that he intended to found a chapter in New Orleans; there, as self-appointed FPCC “secretary,” Oswald rented a storefront with his own money and campaigned for members. He then used the FPCC shell to garner written endorsements from influential American supporters of Castro, to burnish his credentials.

Once in Mexico City, Oswald met with Soviet consular official V. V. Kostikov, who agreed to check with the Soviet embassy in Washington on the status of his Soviet visa. Oswald next went to work on the Cuban side of his visa problem; he received a sympathetic reception at the Cuban embassy from Sylvia Duran, a Mexican national employed there. Oswald insisted his Soviet visa was on its way. Impressed by his FPCC credentials, Duran, with Oswald on the line, called the Soviet embassy but was told there was no word on his visa application.

In this phone conversation, Oswald identified himself by name. The conversation was caught by CIA intercepts and set off alarm bells, as various government agencies, in particular the FBI, scoured their files for traces of Oswald. Marina Oswald received a threatening visit from the local FBI in Dallas, wanting to know why her husband was in Mexico.

With his Mexico City visa caper threatening to collapse, Oswald proposed to the Cuban embassy to travel to Cuba on a transit visa, where he would, supposedly, wait for the Soviet visa. The top consular official denied him a Cuban visa, and Oswald heatedly accused him of not taking care of Cuba’s friends, such as himself.

The joint telephone call to the Soviet embassy was not the end of Oswald’s relationship with Duran. She invited him to a party where he met her friends and colleagues but mainly stood alone in a corner. Conspiracy-theorists hint that Duran’s friends may have played some role in the assassination, although rigorous interrogation (especially of Duran) failed to reveal anything suspicious other than leftist mindsets.

The newly released documents contain little new about Oswald’s Mexico stay. We learn that once Oswald got on the CIA’s radar, it found other phone calls possibly made by him, but those turned out to be of a routine nature.

Collectively, the documents address the CIA’s interest in why Oswald went to Mexico — for visas, or for assassination orders? The new documents show the intelligence community saw no signs of Oswald’s participation in a conspiracy; its impression was that Oswald “had no friends” in Cuba, and the Soviet embassy appeared not to know who he was. How, then, could he have carried out an assassination plot without a credible relationship with the plot’s organizers? The conclusion: Oswald indeed went to Mexico City for the reasons he stated — to get visas for his new life in Cuba.

Let’s assume for a moment that Oswald received “Manchurian candidate”-like orders in Mexico City. Was he likely to receive them from the Soviets, the Cubans, or both?

The case for Moscow is dealt with in a November 1990 report prepared by the KGB concerning Oswald’s time in Minsk. It states that the local Minsk KGB classified him as an “agent.” Finally, perhaps, a smoking gun? But, no: As the report clarifies, the “agent” classification was applied because he voluntarily answered their questions, rendering him a KGB asset. Discussion of recruiting Oswald as a real agent was shot down on the grounds that he was unstable, based on an earlier suicide attempt in Moscow. Once Oswald returned to the U.S., the Minsk KGB claimed to have lost touch with him, although his “best friend” — Pavel Golobachev, a KGB plant — exchanged three letters with Oswald and Marina. They are all on file in the Warren Commission report. Interestingly, one of these advised Marina on the Russian lessons she was then giving me in Fort Worth. They contained no clandestine instructions.

The new documents focus attention on Oswald’s Mexico City conversation with Kostikov, the Soviet consular official who may have been in the KGB’s “wet work” (assassination) directorate. Some consider the Kostikov connection a smoking gun — why else would a KGB officer of his rank deal with a walk-in American seeking a visa?

In a rare analytical intervention, the CIA reports that KGB agents performing routine consular duties were common; KGB officers used such duties as their cover in embassies and consulates worldwide.

The alternative theory, that Oswald acted on Cuban orders, could somehow be based on his FPCC activities in New Orleans. For this to be true, Cuba would have to have been super-impressed with his pro-Castro work to trust him — someone they scarcely knew and apparently didn’t like — to carry out a risky assassination of a U.S. president.

A disappointed Oswald returned from Mexico City to Dallas on a Greyhound bus on Oct. 3, 1963, his plan for a new life in Cuba in tatters. But Oswald did not give up: On Nov, 9, he spent hours typing a letter to the Soviet embassy in Washington; the final draft contained typical Oswald misspellings (“visted,” “interrest,” etc.) and nonexistent punctuation. He wanted consular officials to know he had been treated shabbily by the Cubans in Mexico City but had no complaints about Kostikov. Because of his activities on behalf of communist causes, he wrote, the FBI was after him and was attempting to get his wife to “defect” — so visas for both were an urgent matter.

Oswald’s letter was not posted until Nov. 12. For the Soviets, the letter would be a nightmare, to say the least, coming less than ten days before the assassination and implying Oswald’s “cordial” relationship with Soviet authorities.

The newly released documents do not support the idea that Oswald received assassination orders in Mexico City. Instead, he appeared as an unknown walk-in at both the Soviet and Cuban embassies, which rejected his visa applications. But the documents do underscore Oswald’s perseverance, wiles, stubbornness and ability to plan over a long time-horizon — traits that made him an ideal lone assassin.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. He is author of the book, “The Oswalds: An Untold Account of Marina and Lee.” Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

Tags Assassination of John F. Kennedy JFK JFK assassination JFK files John F. Kennedy assassination Lee Harvey Oswald National Archives

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