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JFK documents shed light on Fort Worth’s David Atlee Phillips

The release Thursday of more than 13,000 previously redacted classified documents associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy sheds new light on a colorful CIA leader from Fort Worth.
The release Thursday of more than 13,000 previously redacted classified documents associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy sheds new light on a colorful CIA leader from Fort Worth. AP archives

The release Thursday of more than 13,000 previously redacted classified documents associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy sheds new light on a colorful CIA leader from Fort Worth.

Scores of documents pertaining to David Atlee Phillips were among the thousands released in mostly unredacted form by the National Archives, part of the evolving final release on long-secret JFK documents.

Most of the documents about Phillips, a graduate of Texas Christian University who died in 1988, are relatively mundane. Many were classified for decades, apparently, because of his place in JFK conspiracy theories.

Phillips landed in the conspiracy stew after a House committee investigating the assassination learned that a person tied to a group considered radical in the United States had said a man named Maurice Bishop met several times with Lee Harvey Oswald.

A CIA case officer in Miami had also said that Phillips had used the name Maurice Bishop as an alias in the past. But the man who described Bishop’s meeting with Oswald insisted that Phillips was not the man he saw.

However, in 2014 that man, Antonio Veciana, did an about-face and said it was indeed Phillips.

Further fueling the intrigue, Phillips was a leader within the CIA in efforts to thwart the spread of communism in Latin America and trying to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Documents released Thursday cover his long career, which began in Chile where he ran a small English-language newspaper in the 1950s before joining the CIA. They also confirm that at times he worked covertly under the guise of being a State Department diplomat.

 

One new document shows his pay history, from when he began as contract agent in 1951 for $600 a month to when he became a staff employee in 1960 earning just under $12,000 a year.

Phillips worked his way up to head of the Western Hemisphere division of the agency and was there during a period in which the CIA has since acknowledged fomenting coups.

Some of the documents border on the absurd. Several are tied to a reprimand castigating Phillips early in his career for leaving secret documents in his office waste basket.

There’s also a taste of tragedy. An internal incident report from Aug. 24, 1968, shows how the CIA was notified about the death of his 15-year-old daughter, killed in a two-car accident in Bethesda, Md.

“Mr. Phillips is under cover,” the report said, not saying where or in what capacity.

Many of the documents also show that Phillips created problems for the agency after he retired. He battled the CIA to allow him to publish his memoir, titled “The Night Watch.”

He also caused a major headache when The New York Times ran a story on March 1, 1977, alleging that the CIA funneled large sums of money to foreign leaders. The article quoted a former CIA official who served in Mexico and Venezuela as saying the leaders of those two countries were not on CIA payroll but received funds for intelligence support.

“I was in both countries, and I was the boss,” said the man, whom CIA documents now show to be Phillips.

The matter blew over, but one document laments how Venezuelan leftists were making hay from the story. It named one agitator, Jose Vicente Rangel, who went on to be the country’s vice president from 2002 to 2007, serving under to the late American nemesis Hugo Chavez.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch

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