Last week, the Biden administration declassified a trove of documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While this action brings the government closer to the full disclosure of relevant files mandated by a 1992 law, it still keeps the most sensitive records secret. Jefferson Morley, author and editor of the “JFK Facts” Substack, joins Ryan Grim to discuss the latest disclosures.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
RG: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
The CIA has long claimed that it had no contact with Lee Harvey Oswald before President Kennedy’s assassination. And for nearly as long, the public has just not believed them. Over the years, voluminous evidence has emerged that shows Oswald very much on the CIA’s radar, and new documents released last week cast even more doubt on the agency’s unbelievable claim.
The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, passed in 1992, directed the National Archives to make public all records relating to the assassination by 2017. But that year came and went without the full release of those documents. And while the Biden administration has kept up the slow release of JFK-related files, they continue to drag their feet on full compliance with the law. All of which prompts the question, almost 60 years later: What do they still have hidden?
The continued concealment of the documents is drawing criticism from the right, too. Here’s Tucker Carlson this week, who said that he had spoken to a confidential source with direct access to the undisclosed documents — and that those documents include a bombshell:
Tucker Carlson: We spoke to someone who had access to the still-hidden CIA documents, a person who was deeply familiar with what they contain. We asked this person directly: Did the CIA have a hand in the murder of John F. Kennedy, an American president?
And here’s the reply we received, verbatim: “The answer is yes. I believe they were involved. It’s a whole different country from what we thought it was. It’s all fake.”
It’s hard to imagine a more jarring response than that. Again, this is not a “conspiracy theorist” that we spoke to. Not even close. This is someone with direct knowledge of the information that once again is being withheld from the American public. And the answer that we received was unequivocal: Yes, the CIA was involved in the assassination of the president.
RG: Tucker even threw some shade at his friend Mike Pompeo:
TC: And people have known this for a long time. The people who knew would include every director of the CIA since November of 1963. And that list would include Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan, one of the most sinister and dishonest figures in American life.
That list would also include — we are sad to say — our friend Mike Pompeo, who ran the CIA in the last administration. Mike Pompeo knew this. We asked Pompeo to join us tonight, and though he rarely turns down a televised interview, he refused to come.
RG: Still, there were, at least, a few new nuggets in the files that were just declassified and I’m going to go over a few of them with author Jefferson Morley, who runs the substack “JFK Facts” and is the author of numerous books on the characters in the JFK story, including “Scorpions’ Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate,” which is about about Richard Nixon and CIA Director Richard Helms, and “The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton,” and “Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA.”
He also wrote a non-CIA book that looks fascinating but that I haven’t read yet called “Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten [Race] Riot of 1835.”
There might be nobody alive you’d rather be sifting through JFK documents with than Jeff Morley, and I’m glad he was able to join me.
RG: Well, Jeff Morley, thank you so much for joining me.
Jeff Morley: Thanks for having me, Ryan.
RG: Can you talk a little bit about how you got into this issue?
JM: Yeah, I started reading about the JFK assassination in the 1980s. And I kind of had an American Studies-type of interest in it. I was interested in how the assassination story was refracted into the culture in movies and books; Don DeLillo’s “Libra” was a notable example.
And I was working as a journalist at that time and, as I read the books, there were some good, [but] most of them weren’t that good, weren’t convincing as history or journalism — some were. But I felt like there was nothing new, and I had nothing to add from the journalism side.
That changed in 1992 after Congress passed the JFK Records Act. And all of a sudden, all these government records that had been secret for a long time, were coming into the National Archives for the first time starting in 1993, and 1994. And so then I thought: Well, there’s gonna be something new there, you know? And so that’s when I really dove in from a reporting point of view.
And those documents were a trove. And so, in there, I found in the CIA’s pre-assassination Oswald file, the names of CIA officers who had signed off on a piece of paper about the unknown Lee Harvey Oswald while JFK was still alive. And so I thought: If I could find those people and get them to talk, that would be a good story.
And sure enough, I found Jane Roman, who turned out to be a very important figure — far more important [laughs] than I understood at the time. Because she was basically Jim Angleton’s right-hand man. She was Angleton’s liaison officer, so she handled all of his communications with the FBI. It is a position of supreme importance.
And so when I asked her about the pre-assassination Oswald files, she had some very interesting things to say. And that really set me off. And that vein of material has not stopped giving to this day.
RG: What’s been the history of the JFK files since 1992? And am I right that basically Oliver Stone’s movie [“JFK”] kind of pushed Congress to pass that act? I was only 13 or so when that movie came out —
JM: Absolutely. Yes.
RG: But I remember it being a cultural sensation. And so as I just look at the timing — I haven’t gone back and looked at the history — but as I look at the timing, it feels like that seems like a response.
JM: It was definitely a response. Stone put a little trailer at the end of the movie. And he said: All of the government’s records, 95 percent of the government’s records, are not public and won’t be made public until 2039, or something. There was a deadline on this material and it was far, far in the future.
And Stone was right: It was 95 percent of the records. The records of the Warren Commission were mostly classified; the records of the House Select Committee on Assassinations; [and] the Church Committee. And so Congress, due to the controversy over Stone’s movie, and the fact of the box office success of the movie — we are talking about a worldwide smash, a couple $100 million in gross revenues — Congress was shamed into doing something about this. Because, thanks to that trailer, Congress was inundated with mail saying: Why is this stuff still secret? You’ve got to make it public right away!
And they really had no choice. And so in October 1992, Congress unanimously approved that JFK Records Act, which is actually a very strong law. And it was strong because it took the power — the final power of declassification — out of the hands of the agencies and gave it to this independent review board. And that’s when we really began to get the true record of the assassination. We haven’t really had the record of the assassination for only 30 years, not even. So we’re really just beginning to learn about the real factual foundations of the assassination record.
RG: And what’s been the journey of those records? How transparent have they been in what they’ve revealed? And has it changed over time? And I want to get to last week’s release soon.
JM: Yeah. Yeah, it has changed over time.
I mean, I focused on the pre-assassination Oswald file. And I still think that is the most important thing that has come out since Oliver Stone’s movie, this collection of the 42 documents that the CIA had in their possession at the time before the assassination, the records about Oswald.
And so what happened was that body of records began to be slowly declassified in the 1990s. The pre-assassination Oswald file was not entirely declassified until 2001, when one of the signatories on the records died, John Whitten. So it took 38 years to declassify the CIA’s file on the alleged lone assassin, indicating the sensitivity of who he was. And the idea that he wasn’t of interest to the CIA is a cover story. They were very interested in him. And when you see this file, there’s no doubt about that.
What has happened since then is the CIA is still loath to surrender everything they have. Trump gave them a pass in 2017 and let them keep about 15,000 documents secret. Biden gave them a pass last year; they coughed up another 1,000. And then yesterday, the CIA coughed up about 7,000 records that were released in full. But there are still 4,000 JFK records generated by the CIA that contain redactions. And so this is for a law that said everything was supposed to be released by October 2017.
So they really, really don’t want to fully disclose around JFK. And what is the average person supposed to think of that? I mean, if you keep hiding something, you gotta believe they have something to hide. I mean, that’s the common-sense reaction. And until they fully disclose, people are going to think that, whether the CIA likes it or not. It’s too many documents: 4,000 documents? Come on!
So last week’s disclosure was a bit of a shell game. They declassified a bunch of things and didn’t declassify a whole lot of things. We did a spot check, the Mary Ferrell Foundation. We looked at 33 documents that we felt were kind of high-value, based on who wrote them and when, [and] that if the redactions came off, we might find something significant.
Out of those 33 documents, only 13 were released in full; 20 others basically had pretty much the same redactions they had the day before. So it really wasn’t a real, full disclosure. It was more like a Potemkin village disclosure. And now they’ve got six more months till June to disclose again — so, they kicked the can down the road, basically.
RG: And what are you still looking for? What is the suspicion of what’s still in there?
JM: What I believe is that the CIA was running a COINTELPRO-style operation against the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a leftist group that was opposed to U.S. policy in Cuba — and pretty popular and pretty effective. They could put people on the street for a protest demonstration, they could get people to write letters to the editor, they could get people to go to Cuba in the summer and say what they saw. And that was a real obstacle to U.S. policymakers. And the CIA and the FBI had targeted the Fair Play for Cuba Committee for destruction.
And if you look at the pattern of withholding, I believe that what they’re withholding was that there was an operation against the Fair Play for Cuba Committee that involved Oswald, and that some CIA officials knowingly used Oswald for intelligence purposes before the assassination.
Now, was that part of an assassination plot? Or were they all over this guy, and they didn’t know the threat that he posed to the president, and they had to hide it for that reason: complicity or incompetence? We can’t really tell.
I don’t think the CIA is an incompetent organization in general. I have journalistic friends who make a strong case for the incompetence argument. It’s plausible based on the evidence. So that’s why we need full disclosure, so that we can get to the fine points of the argument and say: To the best of our knowledge, here’s what’s going on.
But right now, the CIA is determined to control that narrative by controlling the basic facts.
RG: One of the interesting documents in this release involves a character named George de Mohrenschildt.
RG: Before we talk about the document, can you tell people who this guy is?
JM: George de Mohrenschildt was a geologist who traveled all over the world looking for oil, basically, and tipping off oil companies about that. He was a bit of a bon vivant, a white Russian born in Minsk, and he was living in Dallas in 1962 when Lee Oswald returned. And de Mohrenschildt said that he asked a friend, Jim Moore, who was the head of the CIA office in Dallas, about Oswald and de Mohrenschildt said that Moore told him: He’s harmless.
And so de Mohrenschildt befriended him because de Mohrenschildt had grown up in Minsk, and that’s where Oswald had lived — de Mohrenschildt lived there, I think, until he was five, but he had a kind of emotional connection. And so he became friends with Oswald and he liked Oswald, and they met often in late 1962 and early 1963. And de Mohrenschildt is interesting because he was probably the person closest to Oswald who testified to the Warren Commission. And his testimony was very damning to Oswald.
de Mohrenschildt came to regret that and, 10 years later, he concluded that his friend Oswald had not killed the president. And he wrote a memoir explaining why. And he said that he believed Oswald was what he said he was, which was a patsy. So de Mohrenschildt was an interesting character in Oswald’s life, and de Mohrenschildt also, as part of his job, cooperated with the CIA. He wasn’t a paid agent. But he knew when he was talking to CIA people, and he gave them information, and they gave him information. So he does turn up in CIA files quite apart from his involvement in the Kennedy assassination story.
RG: And so he turns up in this document, that I’ll just read little pieces of it to you quickly to get your response to it.
RG: So somebody writes — actually, not just somebody, and we can talk about later how interesting this is. The author is CIA analyst Jerry G. Brown —
RG: — from the Security Analysis Group.
But so, he writes, “It may or may not be of interest that on 29 April 1963, the Office of Security provided Bill Beane DOD” — which, in this context, I understand stands for Domestic Operations Division —
RG: — not Department of Defense, “a copy of a 1958 summary of the case of George de Mohrenschildt. Gale Allen, then a DOD case officer, had requested an expedite check of de Mohrenschildt, ‘exact reason unknown.’ Apparently, Allen’s initial request was initiated through Anna Panor,” and it goes on. But then toward the end, it gets to why this is interesting. It says: “There is no information in the [Warren Commission] testimonies as to what de Mohrenschildts were doing, or with whom they had contact” — this is when they’re making this trip through Washington, New York, and Philadelphia — “during the period 19 April to late May 1963. It is interesting that Gale Allen’s interest in de Mohrenschildt coincided with the earlier portion of this trip and the information would suggest that possibly Allen and de Mohrenschildt were possibly in the same environment in Washington, D.C. circa 26 April 1963.” And then he says, “For your information, de Mohrenschildt was also an associate of Jacqueline Kennedy and her mother, long before the assassination.”
So why is it so interesting that de Mohrenschildt may have intersected with CIA personnel in Washington in April 1963? And why that would have then led to a name search on de Mohrenschildt by the Domestic Operations Division, at the time run by Howard Hunt — why would this be a useful clue in this mystery?
JM: Because the timing is remarkable. It was on April 22, or April 23, that de Mohrenschildt meets with Oswald for the last time and Oswald tells him that he’s moving to New Orleans. And he also — de Mohrenschildt — makes a joke at that meeting about the attempted assassination of Gen. Walker, and at the mention of that Oswald blanches, and de Mohrenschildt realizes that Oswald actually might have been involved in that. So given de Mohrenschildt’s friendly relationship with the CIA, the fact that he is in touch with Domestic Operations Officers the next day, and also the Office of Security, this is interesting, because it was the Office of Security that was the most interested in Oswald, right from the start of his defection.
In fact, for the first year, after Oswald’s defection, the Oswald file is not held by the regular CIA central file registry. It’s held by the Office of Security. So the Office of Security has this unusual, formative interest in Oswald going back for years. And the fact that right after de Mohrenschildt meets with Oswald, gets information from him, then security people in Washington are doing an expedited search, trying to figure out what does de Mohrenschildt know and what’s going on, I mean, could be a coincidence. But it’s striking that it is.
And it’s also interesting that until last Thursday, we never knew the names of those people. And those were — Gale Allen and Bill Beane and Anna Panor — all operations officers. So this wasn’t like a counterintelligence interest in de Mohrenschildt. Like, are they talking about the KGB or something like that? These are people who are running operations. That memo, I believe, lends credence to the notion that they are running an operation around Oswald certainly by late April 1963.
And my thinking on this has been very much influenced by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer. And we’ve talked about this transition in detail. And what Rolf’s observation is that when you’re cultivating an asset you pitch them on a new mission, and then you move him to a new place so that his steps are — you’ve broken from the environment where he was, he’s more secure in a new place. And so, you know, Office of Security Interests, George de Mohrenschildt’s meeting with Oswald, and then this might be the natural way that an operation unfolds.
So that document that you sent me, I think, is a very interesting little piece of the puzzle. And it’s part of — you know, people say: Oh, is there a smoking gun?
No! There’s some painstaking work to figure out what was actually going on here and who was actually doing it — and we got a few more useful details, like in that memo last week.
RG: And it’s a fun archive, because I just searched “de Mohrenschildt,” because he’s such a key player and —
RG: And maybe like the 10th document or so with his name on it, and I’m like: Oh, this is pretty good.
And so for people who are new to this: Why is New Orleans important? What happened with Oswald in New Orleans?
JM: New Orleans is important because when Oswald goes to New Orleans, he had gone to the Soviet Union as a true believer in socialism and communism. He lived there for a couple years and became very disillusioned. It was very rigid, conformist, tightly controlled. It had none of the openness of American life. He was being watched by the KGB constantly. And so he got tired of it, and he came back.
And until April 1963, Oswald had no visible connection or interest in the Cuba issue. And when he goes to New Orleans, he starts writing to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in New York and asking for materials, says he wants to start a chapter. But not until August 1963 does he really come out publicly, and when he does come out publicly as a Castro supporter, it is entirely because of his encounters with a CIA-sponsored propaganda group called the Cuban Student Directorate — Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil — a leading militant, anti-Castro group at the time, which was funded by the CIA, we now know, under a program called AM/SPELL.
So after 30 days of his contacts with AM/SPELL, Oswald now has a full-blown reputation as a Castro supporter, including TV footage, radio footage, and newspaper headlines. All of that material that was developed as a result of Oswald’s encounters with the AM/SPELL program, all of that is fed to the press within hours of Kennedy’s assassination, as if to say: Look, Kennedy was killed by a communist, a supporter of Castro — a shocking revelation.
Now, that drove the first-day coverage. If you look at all the headlines the next day: “the pro-Castro marksman,” “the pro-Cuban assassin” —
JM: That was a very powerful propaganda theme. And we now know that it was generated by a CIA propaganda operation. So that’s why Oswald’s interlude in New Orleans is important. And it’s also why it’s still shrouded in official secrecy.
RG: And can you talk briefly about who the author of this memo is that I just mentioned, Jerry Brown?
JM: Jerry Brown was a CIA officer in this Security Analysis Group, who kind of comes along afterwards and looks at CIA interactions with the public and tries to discern: Is CIA information secure? Are our operations secure? Was any information betrayed?
So, he’s a guy on the inside who’s very familiar with the way things work. And his observations in that memo about: This could be important — I mean, those are important because he’s a guy who knew. He’s not like us coming along extrapolating or trying to figure out how a CIA official would look at this. He’s expressing his views. And he’s saying: This is interesting and important. So that is another reason why I focus on that record.
Now, there’s more about Jerry Brown that I can’t say on the air. But he was — I wouldn’t say a high-ranking — an upper-level CIA official in good standing whose analysis of what was going on should be taken very seriously.
RG: What — [laughs] — hmm. That’s so tantalizing! Can you give us any more clues around why? Have you spoken to Brown? Is he still alive?
JM: He is not still alive. I have been in touch with his family, and that’s why I can’t say any more than that right now.
RG: Mhmm. Sure.
JM: But this is why full disclosure is necessary, because the information that’s in the records can lead us to other information that is not in the records. And that’s what I would say about this Jerry Brown memo is it’s interesting in and of itself, and it’s also interesting, because it can lead us to other information. I will say more about that when I can.
RG: And so how has your own thinking on this evolved in the — what? — 40 years now, it seems that you’ve been looking at it?
JM: Thirty. Thirty.
RG: Thirty-some. I’m curious how your own understanding of it has evolved.
RG: From then till now?
JM: Well, first of all, I mean, like I said, I was struck from the start by if you understand that pre-assassination Oswald file, you know that people at the top of the CIA knew all about this guy. So what does that mean, you know?
That led to kind of the COINTELPRO side of it, the CIA’s interest in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. And the fact that this question of Oswald and the Cubans, over time, that’s the last thing that the CIA surrenders in any given context. And so they lie to the Warren Commission, and they say: We didn’t know Oswald was in the Cuban consulate in Mexico City until after the assassination.
That wasn’t true. Winston Scott, this CIA station chief, knew right away Oswald hadn’t been there. Why are they lying about that? And if you see that pattern of deception, to me, some people say that’s just incompetence and all that — no, that’s how you conceal an operation, is you never talk about the sources and methods, even with your closest colleague.
So my understanding has evolved that that’s still the most sensitive thing out there: What did they know about Oswald and the Cubans before the assassination? And that’s what leads me to the conclusion that there was an operation going on.
Now, is that a CIA plot to kill the president? I’ve also come to the conclusion that I don’t assume that. Remember, the CIA is a junior agency in 1963. It’s only 16 years old, OK? The center of power in the American defense and intelligence establishment is the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They have the prestige; they have the money. And so I think when we get into the depths of these records, we may see an operation against Oswald that was controlled by the Pentagon, not by the CIA.
So I’ve backed off a little bit of a kind of CIA-centric analysis of the Kennedy assassination. The CIA operations around Oswald are crucial. But that doesn’t mean that the CIA was calling the shots.
RG: Would it still involve the same figures that everybody has come to know and love? Cord Meyer, Angleton, Allen Dulles, Howard Hunt, and on and on — even if it involved the Department of Defense?
JM: Yes. I think that it’s clear that the operation in New Orleans, which was run on the ground by a guy named George Joannides out of the Miami station, Joannides was no rogue. He was doing exactly what somebody above him wanted and I think that’s a key question, is: Who was running this operation?
I think Bill Harvey, who was the head of the CIA assassination program, is a possibility. James Angleton, chief of counterintelligence, who also ran operations and black operations as a candidate, and could be somebody in the military. So it does go to a high level, I think that’s very clear. Who it was exactly, that’s what we’re still looking for.
RG: And last question, ’cause I know you’ve got a run: What do you make of Howard Hunt’s famous Rolling Stone deathbed admission, his claim that he told the conspirators: I’m not getting involved in anything that Bill Harvey is involved with, but that he knew that a conspiracy was being put together and told his son about it later in life?
JM: Yeah. I mean, Saint John Hunt shared the tapes of those conversations with me. And they’re problematic. I mean, yes, Hunt did say that. But in the same breath, Hunt would deny that he said that, you know? So you can take quotes from the same interview that say: There was no conspiracy, I don’t think there was a conspiracy.
So he’s quoted selectively, because he does say that. The big event is kind of an allusion to the assassination, other people were involved. He didn’t like Bill Harvey.
But Hunt was a scoundrel. I mean, he’s a convicted felon, he says opposite things in the same breath. So it’s very hard — I find it very hard to hang a lot on that, other than that Howard Hunt was a right-wing partisan, a total CIA loyalist. And so if he’s implicating the CIA, even in a kind of a mealy-mouthed way, it’s an admission against interest, which is striking from a guy like Hunt.
So, to me, you can’t put a lot of weight on that evidence. But it’s an interesting piece of what CIA people thought was going on in 1963. So I don’t hang my hat on it. Yeah. [Laughs.]
RG: So one last last question.
RG: So what did you make of Roger Stone, his inability to persuade Trump to follow through with the JFK Records Act and release the documents? And do you expect that they’ll ever spit these out? Because if Roger Stone couldn’t extract them, who’s going to be able to get these out of the CIA’s clutches?
JM: Yeah, I remember, Roger Stone told me: Jeff, you can count on it, he’s going to take it to those deep-state boys next week. That’s what he was saying right before.
RG: [Chuckles.] Mhmm.
JM: Trump’s a transactional guy. When he had a chance to do this, he realized it wasn’t in his interest to piss off the CIA, and Biden makes the same calculation. Biden’s got a war to fight. So I think the CIA is going to drag this out as long as they can, kick the can down the road — nothing here, please move on, see you later, go home.
But that game is running out. Even the mainstream media organizations are no longer saying that’s an adequate explanation. So I think this next year, we’re gonna have some progress, because their feet are going to be held to the fire, maybe by the Republican House of Representatives even. And I think we’re gonna see a lot more so.
But they are dug in on this one. They really, really don’t want to talk about it, which tells you enough of why we should proceed.
RG: Indeed it does. Jeff, thanks so much for the work you’ve done. And thank you for joining me here.
JM: Thanks for having me, Ryan. Let’s talk again.
RG: Definitely. Definitely.
[End credits music.]
RG: That was Jefferson Morley and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give, where your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.
And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or a review — it helps people find the show. If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at [email protected]
Thanks so much. We’re taking a short holiday break, but we’ll be back in the new year with new episodes.
See you soon.