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Assassination Politics

James Angleton, Frank Church, and the crime of the (last) century


"The charges against my late son Lee Harvey Oswald are false."

--Marguerite Oswald to Frank Church, May 20, 1976

James Angleton likened espionage to a "wilderness of mirrors," a treacherous terrain in which nothing--no identity, no organization, no event--is what it seems.

He would know; his passion was counterintelligence, the art of spying on the other side's spies and misdirecting them.

One of the most disputed corners of this wilderness is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Angleton appears and reappears throughout the story; in the crime, its cover-up, and the ensuing investigations. He helped obscure the role of the Central Intelligence Agency before and after the assassination, and clearly knew more than he ever revealed. Idaho Senator Frank Church shepherded the initial investigation into the coverup, but never reached the heart of the matter.

Just what, researchers have wondered for decades, was the reclusive, obsessively secretive Angleton up to?

The Spy Hunter

James Angleton was born in Boise in 1917 and lived here until he was 10. Later, his family moved to Milan, Italy where Angleton's father ran the Italian franchise of National Cash Register. The younger Angleton graduated from Yale in 1941 and entered Harvard Law School, but was drafted into the U.S. Army in early 1943. Later that year, he entered the country's first real foreign intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services, and in 1947, joined its newly created successor, the Central Intelligence Agency. CIA Director Allen Dulles appointed Angleton to head the agency's counterintelligence staff in 1953.

Angleton was a master of spycraft, a brilliant man who had met fellow Idahoan Ezra Pound and actually published some of his challenging poetry. His capacity for nicotine and alcohol were legendary, but the latter substance may have fueled the legendary paranoia that would eventually be his downfall.

Angleton was a champion of Anatoly Golitsyn, a major in the Russian KGB who had defected to the U.S. in 1961. Golitsyn insisted that the Soviets had planted a "mole" inside the CIA, and spun lurid tales about that country's elaborate "master plan" to subvert the West.

Angleton bought them hook, line and sinker. By the time he was forced out of the CIA in 1974, he had nearly paralyzed the agency. So serious was the damage that Angleton's own deputy accused him of being Golitsyn's mole.

The Cover-Up

Angleton took over the CIA's investigation of the assassination. Thus, it was natural that he serve as the agency's liaison with the Warren Commission. The ostensible mission of that august body was, of course, to determine who had shot Kennedy, but its real goal, we now know, was to assure the anxious nation that the crime was the work of a "lone nut"--Lee Harvey Oswald.

As liaison, Angleton was able to play upon his close friendship with his former boss and Warren Commission member Allen Dulles, whom he secretly kept apprised of developments. The irony of the situation cannot have escaped either of the men. After the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which Kennedy believed the CIA had misled him, the president had expressed a desire to shatter the agency into pieces and scatter them to the wind. He had settled instead for firing Dulles and two of his officers.

Angleton and his FBI counterpart Bill Sullivan coordinated their testimony before the Commission, eliminating any discrepancies.

In Secret and Confidential, British author Anthony Summers offers further insight into this rare example of cooperation between the perennially antagonistic agencies. Summers charges that Angleton possessed sexually compromising photos of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover with his second in command, Clyde Tolson. If so, Angleton could have exercised an exquisite degree of control over Hoover, who was used to exercising this kind of control himself.

The upshot of the CIA's testimony to the Warren Commission was that the agency had, incredibly enough, taken only the most cursory interest in Oswald. This despite the fact that the young Oswald, who had defected for a time to the Soviet Union after a stint in the military, possessed highly sensitive information about American U-2 spy missions--information that may have allowed the Soviets to shoot down a U.S. plane piloted by Gary Powers in 1960.

Thanks to Angleton's handling and the testimony of his new boss, John McCone, the extent of the CIA's culpability in the assassination would remain hidden for years to come, and may never be fully established.

The Liberal Senator

Idahoans are far more familiar with the gregarious Democratic politician Frank Church than with the shadowy Angleton. Church was born in Boise in 1924 and grew up in the capital city. He attended Stanford University and, like Angleton, entered the Harvard Law School, although he returned to California to graduate from the Stanford Law School in 1950.

After practicing law for a time in Boise, Church was elected to the U.S. Senate from Idaho in 1956 and was re-elected three times. Generally liberal in outlook, he became an early opponent of the Vietnam War and supported the return of the Panama Canal to Panama--stands that enraged the state's conservative voters and that would ultimately contribute to his defeat in 1980. Church would vie unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1976.

Church's path crossed Angleton's in the mid-1970s when the senator--a "political celebrity within Washington's liberal left-wing Establishment," according to Angleton--chaired the ground-breaking committee that bears his name.

Sniffing the Onion

Known formally as the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, the Church Committee was created in January 1975 to investigate the CIA abuses that journalist Seymour Hersh and others had uncovered.

As an outspoken critic of American foreign policy excesses, Church was a natural choice to head the committee. The intelligence abuses that he and his colleagues ultimately investigated included spying on American citizens, attempting to assassinate foreign leaders, and misleading the Warren Commission. The latter two concerns merged in explosive combination with regard to the CIA's clandestine and often harebrained attempts to remove Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Such plans would have been of great interest to the Warren Commission, but the CIA had never shared information about their plans with the commission. Thus a potentially revealing avenue of investigation--the possibility of Cuban retaliation toward JFK--was never actively pursued.

Another subject proved even more alarming. As Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker told the Village Voice in late 1975, "We ... know Oswald had intelligence connections. Everywhere you look with him, there are fingerprints of intelligence." Schweiker, a Republican, had been given co-chairmanship of a subcommittee dealing with the role of American intelligence agencies in the assassination, but abandoned his investigation in part due to the formation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976.

Needless to say, the Church Committee met with bitter opposition from members of President Gerald Ford's administration and the intelligence community, most of whom were openly contemptuous of congressional oversight.

"It is inconceivable," the appalled Angleton told Congress, "that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government."

The committee completed its findings in April 1976, only to be pressured by Ford--who had served on the Warren Commission--to keep its assassination findings secret. Church threatened to resign, convincing the full Senate to release the report in November of that year. Although details had already been made public, the committee's revelations that the CIA had plotted to assassinate not only Castro but also such leaders as Patrice Lumumba of the Congo made for damning headlines.

Peeling the Onion

As tempting as it is to see Church and Angleton as evenly matched adversaries in a titanic struggle, the truth is more complex. And as tempting as it is to construct a tidy, symmetrical narrative about that struggle, the truth is less satisfying.

Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer-prize-wining journalist, believed that Church had gone too easily on the CIA, and given what we know now, it's hard not to agree. But the committee operated under a number of constraints, including a tight deadline imposed in part by Church's reluctance to announce his presidential bid while the committee was still working. CIA director William Colby deluged the committee with information, sharing many damaging secrets but holding the worst back.

There may have been another factor as well. CIA agent-turned-critic Victor Marchetti has confided to researcher James DiEugenio that the agency actually infiltrated the committee's staff.

It has been left up to later investigative bodies and private researchers to reveal more of the facts. The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in 1979 that Kennedy probably died as a result of a conspiracy. The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 mandated that all documents pertinent to the assassination be made public, and although a frustrating number remain secret, those that have been declassified have proven to be a gold mine.

As far back as his early days in the Marines, Oswald was believed by acquaintances to have a relationship with some intelligence agency. And despite its assurances to the Warren Commission to the contrary, it turns out that the CIA had taken a very real interest in Oswald for years.

Could Oswald have been on its payroll? During an executive session of the Warren Commission, that question was discussed, along with whether the CIA director would have known about Oswald. Here, the record shows that Dulles provided what may be a crucial clue: "Someone might have done it [hired Oswald] without authority."

Sifting through the evidence, researchers such as John Newman and Anthony Summers have come to a damning conclusion about the truth that James Angleton struggled to conceal. During the weeks immediately preceding the assassination, the CIA was monitoring Oswald's activities closely, while at the same time its agents--or those of some other agency--were preparing to involve him in some clandestine operation.

The Mexico City Shuffle

The CIA's interest in Oswald seems to have peaked at the time he made a visit to Mexico City during late September and early October 1963, just weeks before the assassination. In fact, when Oswald visited the Mexican consulate in New Orleans to apply for a visa, a man standing next to him in line was later revealed to be a CIA "asset," or operative.

Oswald had vague plans to return to the Soviet Union by way of Cuba, and he visited the embassies of both countries. He ran into roadblocks almost immediately, however, and in a fit of anger seemed to have given up on the idea.

Long after the assassination, it was determined that the CIA station in Mexico City had recorded several phone conversations involving Oswald, the Cuban embassy, and the Soviet embassy. The tapes had been destroyed, but some of the transcripts survived. Their often-incongruous content led researchers from the House Select Committee on Assassinations to suspect that someone was impersonating Oswald. Additional evidence of an impersonation comes in the form of a CIA surveillance photograph of "Oswald" in Mexico City. The shot shows a man taller, older, and heavier than the slight 23-year-old alleged assassin.

These anomalies jibe with puzzling stories of a "second Oswald" back in Texas around the same time. The stories were about someone who had created a scene at a gunnery range and taken a used car salesman on a wild test spin--despite the fact that Oswald had never learned to drive. Taken together, they suggest that elements of a sinister "narrative" were being created for future use.

Further evidence of the importance of Mexico City in the scheme of things came a few years later with the death of Winston Scott. Scott had headed the CIA station in Mexico City from 1956 to 1969, and continued to live there after retirement. Upon learning of Scott's death in 1971, Angleton flew to Mexico City so hurriedly that he forgot his passport--a telling oversight from someone known to be so meticulous. Angleton cleared out Scott's personal safe and demanded that his son Michael turn over all his files. According to Michael, these included a tape recording of Oswald and the manuscript of a memoir to be entitled It Came to Little.

Scott died--reportedly of a heart attack--on April 26, after having made arrangements to discuss the contents of his memoir with CIA director Richard Helms. They were to have met four days later.

The Heart of the Matter

At this point, we are left with more questions than answers. Some of the questions are truly terrible:

Was the operation involving Oswald planned by the CIA or by "rogue" agents of the CIA? In either case, did Angleton take part in its planning?

Did the operation involve the assassination of Kennedy? If not, what was its purpose? And if not, was the operation "hijacked" by someone else who was already planning to assassinate Kennedy?

Were anti-Castro Cubans involved? Pro-Castro Cubans? Fidel Castro is said to have been panic-stricken when he heard of the assassination, but could some of his agents have been involved without his knowledge?

Was Oswald a CIA asset himself? If he was being manipulated, did he suspect it? Or did he simply decide one day to shoot the president of the United States?

We may never know the full extent of Angleton's involvement, but we can now understand the dilemma he faced. At best, he had to suppress evidence that the CIA had kept the alleged assassin under observation and had done nothing to stop him.

At worst, he had to suppress evidence that the CIA itself had committed the crime of the century.

At this point, Angleton may well have found himself lost in his own wilderness of mirrors.

Frank Church died April 7, 1984, and James Angleton died little more than three years later on May 11, 1987. The two men, polar opposites in temperament and outlook, are buried within a few hundred feet of each other in Boise's Morris Hill Cemetery.

Assassination 101

Want to know more about the Kennedy assassination? Here are the best works on the subject to date, most by academics with solid credentials.

Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination From a Historian's Perspective by Michael Kurtz. 2nd ed., 1996. Succinct, scholarly summary of the major points of contention. The author, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, concludes that a conspiracy was at work. A new work by Kurtz, The JFK Assassination Debates: Lone Gunman Versus Conspiracy, was published earlier this month.

Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why by Gerald D. McKnight. 2005. Exhaustive analysis of the Warren Commission, and the final nail in its coffin (as if one were needed). The author is professor emeritus of history at Hood College in Maryland.

Oswald and the CIA by John Newman. 1995. Meticulous examination of the relationship that the CIA tried to conceal. Newman served as a military intelligence officer for twenty years and is a professor of history and government at the University of Maryland.

Not in Your Lifetime by Anthony Summers. 1998. A revised and updated edition of the British journalist's classic Conspiracy, with a final chapter by Newman (above). Far and away the best comprehensive work on the subject.

Six Seconds in Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination by Josiah Thompson. 1967. Thompson demolishes the "single-bullet" theory and concludes that the assassination was the work of three gunmen. Originally a professor of philosophy, he has since become a private detective.

In all fairness our list should include a defense of the Warren Commission and its conclusions, but a reliable book written from that perspective has yet to be written.

Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure and Ruby Testifies, a play based on the Jack Ruby's testimony before the Warren Commission.