New evidence links the cases of Kim Philby and Lee Harvey Oswald in fascinating ways.

There Will Never Stop Being New Evidence in the Lee Harvey Oswald and Kim Philby Cases

There Will Never Stop Being New Evidence in the Lee Harvey Oswald and Kim Philby Cases

Scrutinizing culture.
April 10 2013 2:00 PM

Philby and Oswald

The truth is still out there.

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James Angleton, former Chief of Counterintelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency.
James Angleton, former chief of counterintelligence at the CIA, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1975.

Photo by AP

Of course that whole line of thought could have been disinformation spread by Angleton to discredit Philby with Moscow and make himself look like the Master of the Game, when most (including myself and Cleveland Cram, the CIA’s official historian of the mole war within the agency) believe that Philby’s deception drove Angleton crazy with paranoia about potential moles, so crazy that he tore the CIA apart and discredited legitimate suspicion of moles—thereby allowing the real damaging one, Aldrich Ames—who joined after Angleton left—free rein. Are you with me? Don’t worry, I find that even getting lost in this bewildering thicket is illuminating about the way this world works.

In his nonfiction epilogue to Young Philby Littell focuses on a story Teddy Kollek told him about Philby and Angleton shortly before he died in 2007. A significantly more detailed story of a Kollek tip-off than has been seen before, a story about how before the “Third Man” accusation in 1951 Kollek visited Angleton at CIA headquarters in Washington.

Philby was then serving as MI6’s liaison to the CIA, downloading all its secrets to the KGB via an unknowing Angleton, a regular lunch companion of Kim. Or was he? Here’s the money quote from Kollek, according to Littell:

“I was walking towards Angleton’s office ... when suddenly I spotted a familiar face at the other end of the hallway ... I burst into Angleton’s office and said ‘Jim, you’ll never guess who I saw in the hallway. It was Kim Philby!’ And I told him about Vienna ... and the suspicion that Philby may been recruited ... as a Soviet agent. ... And I said ‘Once a Communist, always a Communist.’ ”

Littell says he asked Kollek how Angleton reacted. “No, Jim never reacted to anything. The subject was dropped and never raised again.”


Wow. This is a great moment on the stage of the secret theater. Did Angleton know and pretend he didn’t know? Did he not know and pretend he did? Or did he not believe and pretend he did or ... well you figure out the permutations. Angleton must have run through them at warp speed and decided to leave Kollek—and the rest of us—in eternal doubt. Because if he knew and let on to anyone he did then he couldn’t be sure he could play Philby the way he might have wanted to.

I believe, as they say, the truth is out there. I don’t believe truth is relative or perspective-dependent or that there’s more than one truth. But I also believe the truth is sometimes elusive, terminally ungraspable. Now that we know Angleton heard Kollek’s direct suspicion of Philby, we know he had to have made a decision. But we may never know what that decision was. It might have been something he led certain acolytes to believe after Philby’s defection, to maintain his reputation as all-knowing counterspy. Or it may have been too explosive a truth to trust to anyone but himself. But maybe not. Our chances of knowing it may have died when Angleton did in 1987. The truth is out there, but it may be buried forever.

Angleton’s silence and apparent failure to act: Was it a failure of judgment, a dereliction of duty, or evidence he was playing a deeper game? One CIA analyst even wrote a massive report suggesting Angleton himself was a mole. If you leave aside for a moment the fact that people died because of Philby’s treachery—whichever side he was on—it’s all so deliciously complicated, way beyond le Carré.

And there he is again, Angleton, who, turns out, plays a crucial role in Brian Latell’s new Castro/Oswald book as well. Because while Castro’s Secrets centers on Latell’s firsthand account of debriefing Aspillaga, the 1987 DGI defector (whom he interviewed in depth), Lattel also has dug up files on a previous defector who was inside the Castro’s DGI at the time of the Kennedy assassination and defected in early 1964, while the Warren Report—which concluded that Oswald acted alone—was being written. According to Latell, the 1964 defector claimed the DGI had significant contacts with Oswald, but that Angleton mysteriously suppressed the defector’s report on what Castro might have known, denying the Warren Commission any knowledge of it.

Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine, by Brian Latell.
Castro's Secrets by Brian Latell

Courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan

Both of the previously undisclosed DGI defector reports center on a highly contentious episode two months before the assassination of JFK, when Oswald visited the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City and demanded a visa to Cuba—supposedly to fight for the Cuban Revolution then under threat from invasion and assassination plots orchestrated by JFK and his brother Bobby. Or was it an Oswald impersonator who visited the Cuban Embassy? The notorious “second Oswald,” or one of the second Oswalds as conspiracy theorists have argued? The conspiracy paradigm, which has guided skeptics of the “lone gunman” theory for a half-century, has it that we ought never to take Oswald at his word that he was a fanatic follower of Castro; instead we must believe this image of Oswald was made up or set up (by an impersonator) so that the JFK kill could be pinned on a Commie—thus justifying for anti-Castro Cubans or the Mafia or the CIA (or whoever really did the hit) a retaliatory final invasion to overthrow Fidel.

Latell’s new information undermines this farfetched-sounding but widely accepted view. Latell’s view is such heresy that one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable lone-gunman skeptics I know told me he refused to read Latell’s book. He said he’d caught Latell in a misquotation in some review of the book and that was enough for him.

I probably don’t have to fill you in much about Oswald. The sociological obverse of Philby: No Cambridge grad, Oswald was New Orleans born and spent a difficult youth in the Bronx. The only salient detail we know about his youth is that he liked to watch the TV show I Led Three Lives, about an FBI man who goes undercover to investigate Red subversion plots. A mole! As a Marine, Oswald just happened to be stationed at a U-2 base in Japan; he subsequently defected to the Soviet Union, declaring himself a true believer in Communism. The defection has long been a source of much speculation: Had he been “planted” there by our side? The way Philby was suspected of being a plant?

Oswald’s usually portrayed as a dumb patsy, loon, or tool, but he was onto the whole mole game from the get-go from that TV show. A subject of conspiracy theories, yes, but maybe a deliberate manipulator of the mystification that would surround him. Smarter than most give him credit for, in his black sweater he looked and sometimes sounded like a twisted Lenny Bruce.

The KGB had its doubts about Oswald, or so it appears: They settled him in out-of-the-way Minsk, where he married a young Russian named Marina. They bugged his apartment for years. (Norman Mailer and Larry Schiller got the tapes which are, alas, fairly mundane.)

Then he decided to re-defect to the U.S. (Was he going back because he was disillusioned by Communism, or because the KGB sent him on a mission?) He settled in Dallas, but in the summer of ’63 moved on his own to New Orleans, where he advertised himself as a pro-Castro activist and got into fights with anti-Castro Cubans. (Was he making himself conspicuous as a Communist in order to pin the forthcoming crime on Castro or the Russians?)

It was Oswald’s trip that fall to Mexico City that is the hot center of Lee Harvey conspiracy theory. And Latell now comes forward with two defectors from the DGI to say Oswald had extensive contacts with Fidel’s intel men in Mexico City, even cites a report Oswald vowed to kill Kennedy, and that Fidel knew of those contacts.

In other words Fidel may have had—Latell is not definitive but strongly suggestive of it—foreknowledge of Oswald’s motives, if not complicity in the Dallas hit. Latell’s attention-getting revelation: According to DGI defector Aspillaga, on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, the DGI was ordered to shift radio surveillance from South Florida, where the Cuba exiles were habitually scheming, to Texas, where JFK was touring in an open car. You do the math.

I did, and it still doesn’t quite add up to me: I don’t consider this shift in surveillance decisive because Castro or the DGI may just have wanted to make sure they didn’t miss a word JFK had to say at this high point in tensions between Cuba and the U.S. Daggers were drawn: That very morning in Paris, Nov. 22, a top-level CIA agent was handing a poison fountain pen to a man he thought was a CIA mole. The man, part of Castro’s entourage, was supposed to use it to inject Fidel with a deadly toxin. I’m not making this up, and it makes sense when put in the light of the almost unbroken record of CIA blunders to this day. Because the fountain pen assassin was actually a triple agent (see, they exist!) working for Fidel and the DGI and told them all about this idiot murder plot. A fact long-rumored but substantiated by Aspillaga, Latell’s defector. And—according to Latell—a putative motive for Castro to hit JFK or allow a hit plan to go forward. Though Fidel denied it, repeatedly, Aspillaga insists Castro was lying at the very least about his knowledge of Oswald activity at the Cuban Embassy, and his pro-Castro allegiance.

And in the midst of all this we once again find James Angleton, whose counterintelligence staff in the aftermath of the assassination was sending questions to the 1964 DGI defector who claimed the DGI had extensive contacts with Oswald “before, during, and after” his Mexico City trip. But Angleton never shared this potentially crucial information with the Warren Commission.

Which leaves the question: Why did Angleton withhold this potentially crucial information from the Warren Commission investigators? Was he thinking where it might lead? The big fear among many, including new president Lyndon Johnson and Chief Justice Earl Warren, was that we would discover an explosively dangerous truth, a truth that could lead to a third world war. Latell comes out and echoes that fear, which was not out of the question. If it had been found out then that the KGB or the DGI was complicit in the Kennedy kill, we may well have been provoked to invade Cuba, leading—Latell speculates—to a clash with the Russian troops still stationed there, leading to ... who knows. If it were true, nobody, including apparently Angleton, wanted it known. The price of revenge might be too high.

Nonetheless, over the years the Angleton loyalists in the intelligence community and the press have leaked provocative bits from the Master suggesting the KGB or the DGI was behind the JFK assassination. Indeed, Edward J. Epstein, whose reporting on Angleton has been the most extensive of anyone, comes out and declares, in his new book The Annals of Unsolved Crimes, that “my own assessment is that Cuban intelligence had influenced, if not directed, Oswald’s actions”—a judgment based in part based on Latell’s revelations. “We now know,” Epstein writes, “that Castro had the most powerful of all motives: self-preservation. … Castro ascertained that the CIA was actively planning to assassinate him [and that] the plot appeared to have the backing of JFK himself.” I don’t believe the evidence available allows such a definitive conclusion, but it is a thought-provoking heresy.

Will the Latell book (and Epstein’s conclusion) cause a rethink of the dominant assassination conspiracy paradigm? I wish I could say or Latell could tell, or Littell will tell. I think Angleton knew more than he would tell. (He knew about the poison fountain pen plot, for instance.) But both stories point to crucial unresolved questions that still trouble our national soul, inflection points in the Cold War politics that got us where we are but could have led to nuclear conflagration.

Angleton himself once said something typically cryptic to me along those lines in a telephone call. When I asked him to discuss details of the past after he’d left the CIA, he told me he couldn’t because “the past telescopes into the future.” Or was it the future telescopes into the past? Now I’m not so sure.