Half-a-dozen 2017 releases of long-secret documents about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy have given plenty of new leads to those who don’t believe alleged gunman Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
President Donald Trump promised via Twitter this fall that all the JFK assassination documents will be public by the end of April 2018 “to put any and all conspiracies to rest.”
Instead, the 34,963 documents released so far in 2017 have fed the fire tended by researchers and others who believe there is much more to the story how a U.S. president was assassinated in Dallas 54 years ago.
“To this point, as expected, we haven’t had a document that lists the conspirators in the murder of President Kennedy,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and author of The Kennedy Half Century. “What we have gotten is a lot of rich material, not just about the Kennedy assassination but the times.”
It was a 1991 movie, Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” that led Congress to require the secret documents to be released more than two decades later after they were reviewed for national security purposes and to protect past informants. The film, which challenged the official version of the assassination, brought conspiracy theorists into the mainstream and led other Americans to question the official version of events.
McClatchy’s Washington bureau, the Miami Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have pored over thousands of newly released JFK documents. Here are some of the new or bolstered leads revealed thus far by the new material.
Dallas mayor was CIA asset
One particular document from the August release has created much buzz. It that shows that Earle Cabell, mayor of Dallas at the time of the Nov. 22, 1963, shooting, became a CIA asset in late 1956.
The CIA had withheld the information on grounds that it was not considered relevant. No related documents have been released, but even alone it is important. Cabell’s brother Charles was deputy director of the CIA until he was fired by Kennedy in January 1962.
“That shows why Dallas was the place,” said Zack Shelton, a retired veteran FBI agent who fervently disbelieves that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman. “I think the investigation or focus is going to be turned more into Oswald not being the lone wolf.”
Shelton, now 67 and retired in Beaumont, Texas, was an FBI agent in Chicago combating organized crime in the 1980s. In the process of helping bust a contraband ring involving an alleged mafia hitman named James Files, Shelton was told that Files had curious things to say about the Kennedy killing roughly 20 years earlier.
That tip to Shelton launched a chain of events that led to Files confessing from prison in Illinois that he was one of several gunmen in Dallas on the fateful day, and that he fired from the famous grassy knoll.
Many historians dismiss Files’ claims, but Shelton maintains that Files was indeed an assassin and was part of the Cosa Nostra mob organization headed in Chicago by Salvatore “Sam the Cigar” Giancana. Files was released from prison in 2016 after a long stint for attempted murder.
The CIA and FBI documents released so far say nothing about Files or another assassin he allegedly worked with named Charles Nicoletti, but that’s no surprise to Wim Dankbaar. He’s a Dutch national with a website and videos devoted to debunking what he considers a myth — that Oswald killed Kennedy or that he acted alone — and promoting the view that Files assassinated Kennedy.
“Do you really think they haven’t deep-sixed the incriminating files?” Dankbaar asked in a testy telephone interview.
The November tranche of new documents does include some about Giancana’s courier, a former Chicago cop who went by the alias Richard Cain and met in Mexico City with CIA staff; he was also an informant for the FBI. A 1992 biography written by Giancana’s family said the mob boss had told his younger brother that Cain and Nicoloetti, not Oswald, were in the Texas Book Depository from where shots at Kennedy were fired.
In addition, several new documents discuss the CIA and its work with mobsters to prevent Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba and later oust him.
There’s this bar in New Orleans
Another revelatory JFK document released in full on Dec. 15 was the transcript of a 1978 interview by the House Select Committee on Assassinations with Orest Pena. According to Pena, a bar owner in New Orleans, Lee Harvey Oswald was a U.S. government agent or informant.
How did he know? Because Pena himself was an informant, he said. He had given details to the Warren Commission in July 1964 but, as the new document shows, later revealed much more detail about Warren de Brueys, an FBI agent in New Orleans to whom Pena said he reported.
Oswald, he claimed, frequented a breakfast place regularly not only with de Brueys but with agents from U.S. Customs and Immigration in New Orleans. Pena believed Oswald had an office in the same government complex.
Pena also testified to the House panel that de Brueys had threatened him if he shared with investigators details of their meetings and training of anti-Castro instigators, and that his FBI handler had transferred to Dallas before the assassination. Pena’s testimony, however, was largely discounted by two government commissions.
“Their reasons for denying this were weak,” said Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, which boasts the largest searchable electronic collection of JFK assassination documents; Bradford is another disbeliever in the official version of events.
The newly released transcript is likely to spark new interest in the New Orleans link to the assassination and searches of government records in multiple agencies, he said.
De Brueys died in 2013 at the age of 92. Son Jim de Brueys told the New Orleans Advocate at the time that his father was sent to Dallas after the assassination, not before, and that he was long frustrated by being named in conspiracy theories.
David Atlee Phillips, Texan in Mexico
One of the names experts are watching for in the documents yet to be released is David Atlee Phillips. The Texan was a native of Fort Worth, a decorated World War II veteran and actor who rose to CIA leadership roles across the Americas, including Cuba, Mexico and Chile.
Among the new documents released earlier this month was one showing that the CIA itself was trying to gauge what Phillips knew about Oswald and when he learned certain things about the alleged gunman’s mysterious September 1963 trip to Mexico.
Documents show that the CIA had tracked Oswald and picked up phone intercepts of his calls with and visits to the Soviet and Cuban embassies in the Mexican capital just months before the assassination in Dallas.
“He was there for six days and we know about six hours. What was he doing there? I don’t think he was on vacation,” said Sabato, who thinks there is still much to learn about the Mexico trip.
The new documents provide details about people with whom Oswald met in Mexico and agency efforts to reconstruct his time there when he visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies, purportedly seeking to travel to either country. Spying on the Cuban embassy was one of Phillips’ chief tasks, he wrote in his own autobiography, “The Night Watch.”
A main reason Phillips is of such interest is the claim by a now elderly anti-Castro leader in Miami that Oswald was a CIA informant handled by a man named Maurice (or Morris, as it sometimes appears) Bishop. And Bishop was actually an alias used by Phillips, insists Antonio Veciana.
Veciana, a Cuban émigré, helped lead the anti-Castro group Alpha 66 and claims he himself worked with Bishop/Phillips, and saw him with Oswald.
In a statement to McClatchy, Veciana, now 89 and in failing health, said that “I have no doubt that the man I knew as Maurice Bishop was David Atlee Phillips. He was the same man I saw with Oswald.”
The newly released documents show that the CIA looked into Veciana’s claim. One document reveals a list of all employees past and present with the last name Bishop, ordered up by agency leaders.
“I don’t think I will live to see it, but as more documents come to light the country will eventually learn the truth about the Kennedy assassination and in what way Bishop/Phillips was involved,” Veciana told McClatchy.
Shawn Phillips, now 74 and an acclaimed folk musician, is the nephew of the former CIA leader. He has been often quoted telling the story of how his own father, James, became estranged from brother David late in life; an attempted reconciliation went south after David, dying from lung cancer, confessed to James that he had been in Dallas the day of JFK’s assassination.
The nephew did not return requests for comment, but in a 1988 poem eulogized his uncle as a man of mystery and complexity.
In “The Night Watch,” written years earlier, David Atlee Phillips said that he was working in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City when he got a call from his wife saying she’d heard a report that Kennedy had been shot, contrary to what he supposedly confessed on his deathbed.
Of Oswald he wrote, “I know of no evidence to suggest that Oswald acted as an agent for the Cubans or the Russians, that he was a CIA agent or that any aspect of his Mexico City trip was any more ominous than reported by the Warren Commission.”
Still, documents released in 2017 suggest the CIA and FBI spent decades trying to better understand Oswald’s time in Mexico.
Other twists in the newly released documents include the finding that an ultra conservative former secret agent named George Gaudet had mysteriously had been issued a Mexican travel permit whose number was the next one after Oswald’s permit number.
And in yet another revealing document that will set researchers hunting in a new direction, there’s the account of a call to the British paper , the Cambridge Evening News, just 25 minutes before the assassination, advising that the U.S. embassy would soon have big news. The released document was a memo from the CIA to the FBI, dated four days after the killing, and notes the information was shared with Britain’s MI5.
“It’s getting late in the game. We are 54 years on,” said Bradford, with the Mary Ferrell Foundation.