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Oswald and the CIA

by Dick Russell

High Times - August 1996

One day after receiving a letter from the Assassination Records Review Board, a key witness in the murder of JFK was found dead in his home in California. Meanwhile, new evidence continues to pile up regarding Lee Harvey Oswald's connections to the CIA.

At 9 PM last November 1, the landlord of a house in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles unsuccessfully tried the locks, then pried open a window and forced his way inside. Robert Lavelle had been alerted by a neighbor that his tenant, 65-year-old Richard Case Nagell, had not been seen for several days. Lavelle discovered the already-decomposing body of Nagell in the bathroom, and immediately alerted the police.

Only the morning before, in Washington, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB)--mandated by Congress under the JFK Records Act of 1992 to review for public release all still-secret files on the John F. Kennedy assassination--had mailed Richard Nagell a letter. The board was seeking access to documentation he claimed to possess about a conspiracy to murder the 35th President of the United States.

Although an autopsy performed by the L.A. County Coroner's office determined that Nagell had died of a heart attack, the timing triggered alarm inside the ARRB. More than a month earlier, based upon testimony of this writer at a public hearing in Boston, ARRB executives had decided to pursue Nagell's private files and use their subpoena power to call him to testify. Upon hearing of his sudden death, the ARRB issued a subpoena for any records he may have kept in his house and flew an investigator to Los Angeles.

What may surface next remains an open and very provocative question. As outlined in my 1992 book about Nagell, The Man Who Knew Too Much (Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York), the ex-military intelligence and CIA operative said he had made arrangements for certain "smoking guns" to be divulged in the event of his death. These are likely to include a tape recording done surreptitiously by Nagell in the late summer of 1963, where at least four individuals--himself, Lee Harvey Oswald and two Cuban exiles--plotted the assassination of President Kennedy. A photograph of Nagell and Oswald, which Nagell had a vendor take in New Orleans' Jackson Square, was said to be stashed in a bank vault in Zurich, Switzerland.

In summary, what Nagell has chosen to reveal about his role in the conspiracy goes like this: Under contract to the CIA, he undertook an assignment as a "double agent" who would cooperate with Soviet intelligence beginning in the autumn of 1962. Under KGB instructions from Mexico City, for a year he monitored discussions among a group of embittered Cuban exiles who were seeking to assassinate Kennedy and make it look as though Fidel Castro's Cuba was behind it. He was simultaneously asked to keep an eye on Lee Harvey Oswald, recently returned to America after his alleged "defection" to the USSR.

Oswald was brought into the conspiracy in July 1963, deceived into thinking he was working for Castro. Soviet intelligence ordered Nagell either to convince Oswald he was being set up to take the rap--or to kill him in Mexico City before the assassination could transpire. While both U S and Soviet intelligence agencies were aware of the conspiracy, it was the KGB--not the CIA or FBI--that attempted to prevent it. The Soviets, who had reached a growing accommodation with Kennedy after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were also afraid that the assassination would falsely be blamed upon them or the Cubans.

Nagell, instead of carrying out his assignment, sent a registered letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (which he also served as a confidential informant) more than two months before the tragedy in Dallas, providing enough information to warrant the arrest of Oswald and two Cuban exiles. While the bureau says it cannot locate any such letter in its files, it is likely that Nagell kept a copy and the registered-mail receipt among his effects.

Also alerting CIA officials of the plot, Nagell then walked into a bank in El Paso, Texas, on September 20, 1963, fired two shots into the wall and intentionally had himself placed in federal custody. He hinted to me in a series of meetings that right-wing extremists, including wealthy Texas oil interests and CIA renegades, were ultimately behind the assassination.

Considerable documentation, including a notebook seized by the FBI upon Nagell's arrest that contained listings remarkably similar to Oswald's own notebook, already lends credibility to his story. Yet he was ignored by both the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations. The new ARRB thus became the first official government body to express an interest in what he might be able to reveal. And, like Oswald's friend George deMohrenschildt--who allegedly committed suicide hours before a House Select Committee investigator was to see him in 1977--suddenly, Nagell was dead.

Previously unavailable files released so far through the ARRB's process have already raised more questions about a high-level cover-up surrounding Nagell. After his arrest in El Paso, he was held without a trial for nine months in a county jail, where the FBI and Secret Service visited him on several occasions after the assassination. Although no mention is made of Nagell in the Warren Commission's 26 volumes, FBI reports from December 1963 clearly state that he talked of having known Oswald in Texas and Mexico City.

Transcripts of assassination-related telephone conversations with President Lyndon Johnson show that his friend Homer Thornberry, a federal judge who had been a Texas Congressman, was in touch with LBJ twice in the weeks following the assassination. Then, late in January 1964, Thornberry suddenly stepped in as the new judge in the Nagell case--where court transcripts indicated a concerted effort to suppress Nagell's efforts to describe his true motive for his alleged "attempted bank robbery." Thornberry handed down the maximum sentence upon Nagell's conviction in June 1964, a conviction that was later overturned on appeal. Nagell was released from prison in the spring of 1968, flying to Europe shortly thereafter, where he was arrested on a train by East German authorities and held for four months behind the then-"Iron Curtain" before being released to US authorities at the Berlin border.

Long before this, according to a just-declassified March 20, 1964 CIA file, the agency was pursuing the significance of six names of CIA employees found in the Nagell notebook taken by the FBI in September 1963. Another CIA memorandum, dated July 20, 1963 out of its Mexico City station, tells of an American using the name Eldon Hensen who wanted to establish contact with the Cuban Embassy there. Having picked up this information via a telephone tap, the CIA then dispatched someone posing as a Cuban Embassy officer to lure Hensen to a hotel restaurant. The file describes Hensen's expressed willingness to "help Castro government in US, willing travel, has many good contacts in States, can 'move things from one place to another' "--which carries overtones of Nagell's own "double" role.

Author John Newman, in Oswald And The CIA, his 1995 book based on the recently released files, uses this incident to highlight the CIA's capability "to enter surreptitiously into someone's life to control or manipulate it," a scenario Newman cites as a precursor to the agency's shenanigans when Oswald paid visits to the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City two months later. What Newman fails to mention is the significance of the CIA file's stating that Hensen "agreed accept phone call with key word 'Laredo' as call from [deleted] contact."

In one of my interviews with Nagell in 1978, he discussed his own use of the same code name, "Laredo," when making contact with Soviet intelligence. When I last spoke with Nagell in April 1994 and gave him Hensen's physical description, he said only: "That fits somebody I'd run into at the time." Asked why he chose not to mention Nagell in his book, Newman responded: "My methodology made that impossible. If it wasn't in the new documents, it didn't make it into my manuscript. I wanted to keep everything focused on the CIA's internal paper trail. I still don't know what to make of the Nagell story; if it's true, it's dynamite."

What Newman sets down about the CIA's "paper trail" does, in fact, add credence to the Nagell revelations. Here, for example, is the author's summary analysis of the three months preceding the assassination:

"The CIA was far more interested in Oswald than they have ever admitted to publicly. At some time before the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban Affairs offices at the CIA developed a keen operational interest in him. Oswald's visit to Mexico City may have had some connection to the FBI or CIA. It appears that the Mexico City station wrapped its own operation around Oswald's consular visits there. Whether or not Oswald understood what was going on is less clear than the probability that something operational was happening in conjugation with his visit."

Noting the possibility of a CIA "renegade faction" manipulating Oswald, Newman concludes: "We can finally say with some authority that the CIA was spinning a web of deception about Oswald weeks before the President's murder," based upon an exhaustive survey of now-visible files that were denied to previous official investigations.

This dovetails with Nagell's earlier statements that the CIA's Cuban Task Force, then run by Desmond FitzGerald, as well as the agency's Mexico City station, were deeply embroiled in the Oswald affair. It also backs up his claim that Oswald did not know who was pulling his strings.

Newman devotes considerable attention, too, to Gerry Patrick Hemming, whose CIA files bear curious parallels to Oswald's. A former Marine who filed reports to the agency, Hemming claimed to have met with Oswald near the Cuban consulate in Los Angeles early in 1959. Hemming's trail into the Cuban exile community seems to have been followed by two CIA employees in Los Angeles, Joseph DaVanon and Ernest Liebacher. Both of their names appear in the notebook seized from Nagell by the FBI in September 1963, under the heading "C.I.A."

Also pertinent is Newman's tracing of earlier CIA interest in Oswald, from the moment the ex-Marine showed up at the American Embassy in Moscow trying to renounce his citizenship in October 1959. "I was particularly interested,"Newman says, "in trying to marshal evidence for Oswald having been a counterintelligence dangle. In other words, the CIA would have been using him to ferret out a 'mole,' who was first thought to be in the U-2 program before the focus very quickly changed to their own Soviet Russia Division." (A "mole" is a hidden asset of the KGB, such as Aldrich Ames; observing the then top-secret U-2 spy-plane program was part of Oswald's mission while a Marine in Japan.)

Newman observes that the "most pronounced fingerprints" on Oswald emanated from the CIA's mole-hunting unit, CI/SIG, run by the late superspook James Jesus Angleton. The existence of Soviet moles inside the CIA was among Nagell's key points about the assassination. He indicated that John Paisley, who was in charge of a CIA unit overseeing Soviet electronics at the time Oswald was employed in a radio-electronics factory in Minsk--and who died mysteriously in 1978--was one such mole. Nagell also hinted that his own case officer inside the Mexico City station had nefarious ties to Soviet intelligence, which he himself did not discover until the late summer of 1963.

This is not to say that the Soviets were behind the assassination, a theory that Nagell adamantly repudiated, but rather that the CIA hierarchy's cover-up of its relations with Oswald related to its ultra-secret mole hunt.

Norman Mailer, whose 1995 book Oswald's Tale offers fresh insights into Oswald's time in the USSR, conducted numerous interviews with ex-KGB agents there. After reading Newman's book, Mailer says: "I redid a little my thinking on what the KGB told us. They were very consistent, which made me suspicious as it made me confident. They said over and over they were not interested in Oswald because they had better information on the U-2. What is he, some kind of exotic dangle? they wondered. Did the CIA send him over here as just someone who they [CIA] could observe what's done to him? So we don't do anything to him, we won't debrief him overtly, we don't want to tip our hand."

I accepted that, when I got to know the KGB and how conservative they were, how terrified of making a mistake. The KGB is seen in America as a tremendous evil, adventurers. Yeah, they had a wing of 100 guys who were daredevils, like the CIA, but generally the outfit was exceptionally conservative. But reading Newman, I began to think they were afraid that the CIA was after a mole who was telling the KGB about the U-2. This is something I didn't think of while we were over there, I wish we had. We didn't see all the KGB files, no question. They didn't reveal a lot to us, saying they were protecting their sources, and there's no question we received an edited version of their files."

Taking up residence for three months in Russia, Mailer was granted access to much information gathered by the KGB during Oswald's tenure in the USSR, which his book quotes at length and proves that Soviet intelligence bugged Oswald's Minsk apartment and maintained constant surveillance of his activities. Mailer believes the KGB "never would have used Oswald. They had too much petty stuff on him. Once you've seen a man losing arguments and being stupid with his wife, it's very hard to pick him to go out and kill a President. In fact, their first fear was that the assassination was a provocation by the United States to start a nuclear war. But I used to quiz the KGB very hard about whether they didn't keep up with Oswald when he came back to the USA. Finally what they confessed was, they didn't have the resources. It was very difficult because their every move here was being watched."

This, of course, does not take into account whether the KGB could have utilized an American "double agent," like Nagell, to keep tabs on Oswald. On the US side, Mailer thinks the CIA/FBI cover-up was "to protect other things. They had a lot more relations with Oswald than they have allowed. This may have gone as far as [the FBI's] COINTELPRO, and even people inside the [CIA's anti-Castro] JM/WAVE operation knowing of his potential as a killer."

Mailer's book has been taken to task by conspiracy theorists as a sellout, as his research led him to offer a 75 percent conclusion that Oswald probably acted alone. "But I'm not totally convinced [of that]." Mailer says. "If somebody came along with exciting evidence, I'd be willing to chase down another direction. I don't feel the case is closed for me at all."

Mailer and Newman were scheduled for a debate at the Coalition for Political Assassinations conference in Washington last October, until certain preconditions set by Mailer were turned down by the coalition's chief organizer. This led Newman, a retired military-intelligence analyst, to take Mailer to task at the conference, especially over his failure to study the latest batches of CIA files. For his part, Mailer says he figured, "What's the point? We could only do a slipshod job on the new files and they'll be digestible for years to come."

As for Newman's work, Mailer adds: "I think the service he performed was to lay out what the intelligence agencies had not been wanting to give us. It's almost as if they were providing the outer husk of the onion, and we're going to have to keep fighting to get layer after layer after layer. But I'd have been much happier if Newman had used his knowledge of intelligence to give us a fighting chance at some idea of how the routing [of CIA/FBI internal information] really works."

While each of these latest books on the assassination unearths some new ground--particularly Newman's sometimes ponderous, but meticulous, scrutiny of the CIA's all-too-evident operational interest in Oswald long before November 22, 1963--the real breakthroughs are likely to follow in the coming months from the Assassination Records Review Board. The ARRB ran up against FBI stonewalling last August, after voting for full release of 15 records which the bureau then appealed directly to President Clinton to continue to withhold on "national security" grounds. The ARRB has come under fire from some assassination researchers for complying with FBI and CIA requests to keep back certain files "relating to sensitive intelligence sources and methods."

Still, what's been publicly released so far--with the promise of much more to come before the ARRB mandate expires late in 1997--has given additional fuel to conspiracy researchers. We now know, for example, that David Phillips, the CIA's covert-action chief in Mexico City, was in Washington on October 1, 1963, waiting to pick up "bulk materials." These probably included transcripts of conversations between Oswald and Moscow's Soviet Embassy, some of which appear to have involved an Oswald impostor.

We also know that, as early as February 1961, Phillips was supervising a CIA operation against the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a one-man chapter of which Oswald established in New Orleans in the summer of 1963. Phillips was working in tandem with James McCord, a CIA agent later involved in the Watergate scandal. As far back as 1976, both Phillips and McCord were cited in cryptic comments by Richard Nagell as having played some role in the CIA's relationship with Oswald.

Until a CIA file release by the ARRB last September, the CIA had always refused to acknowledge its use of double agents against the Soviets. However, a November 29, 1963 cable relating to its Mexico City operations states that CIA "double agents have not had meetings with Sovs [Soviets] since assassination." This is further substantiation for the agency's utilization of operatives like Nagell.

According to Noel Twyman, a San Diego researcher who was able to speak to Nagell twice over the telephone in the months before his death, he expressed renewed fear for his life but said his private files were in safekeeping. Nagell added that there are individuals still alive who would be greatly "embarrassed" in the event his materials should come to light.

Two police officers entering Nagell's residence after his body was discovered found no evidence of anything having been disturbed. A number of weapons were inventoried and the house was sealed off by the L.A. Coroner's office, pending the arrival of an executor named by Nagell for his estate. An LAPD officer was said to be watching the house to make sure that nobody broke in. Meantime, a curious message went from the coroner's office to the L.A. Public Administrator, which is in charge of estate arrangements. "When entering the house, beware of traps or pitfalls, due to deceased's CIA background connections," it said. Clearly, L.A. officials realized this was no ordinary case.

Richard Case Nagell died as he lived, alone and holding his cards close to his vest. The Assassination Records Review Board did make contact with his executor, but what transpired next is being held closely by Washington. Will the world soon know the full story of "the man who knew too much?" For now, it is a waiting game.

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