Documents haven’t quelled JFK conspiracy theories. Do the answers lie abroad?

Does the key to unlocking the enduring mystery of the Kennedy assassination lie abroad, in Belarus, Cuba or Mexico?

A special review board created in the 1990s to declassify U.S. government assassination secrets tried to secure important information from those countries. It was unsuccessful.

But as the window for the 25-year-long declassification of John F. Kennedy assassination documents closes on April 26 — with experts warning that a smoking-gun document is unlikely to turn up in the remaining tens of thousands of U.S. government files — pursuit of definitive answers is likely to shift overseas.

Judge Tunheim photo
John R. Tunheim, now a federal district judge in Minnesota, led the Assassination Records Review Board from 1994 to 1998. It oversaw and set dates for the release of tens of thousands of government documents about the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Handout photo

“The biggest cache of records that are still out there, the real treasure trove, are the Oswald KGB surveillance records,” said John R. Tunheim, now a federal district judge in Minnesota, who from 1994 to 1998 headed the Assassination Records Review Board.

That bipartisan body was created after Congress passed a law in 1992 starting the clock for release of all JFK assassination records. The action was prompted by an outcry after Oliver Stone’s hit movie JFK discredited the official version of Kennedy’s murder.

In the 1990s, Belarus was still home to a five-foot-high stack of KGB surveillance documents on alleged Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

The 20-year-old Marine defected to the Soviet Union soon after he was discharged in 1959 and was given a factory job in Minsk, the capital of what today is Belarus. The accused Kennedy assassin worked there until returning to the United States in 1962.

Tunheim and colleagues declassified tens of thousands of U.S. documents in those four years, and set a timetable for complete release of documents that had been redacted. Many have trickled out over the past 25 years under schedules set by the board.

Then last year came four large document releases by the National Archives. The veil was supposed to be fully lifted by October 2017, but President Donald Trump extended the deadline to April 26.

More than 34,000 documents were posted online by the National Archives last year, many with redactions. McClatchy has learned that more than 22,000 documents still have not been released in full.

But most of those at least partially released have not been complete surprises, dampening anticipation of a big reveal by the end of April.

When Tunheim’s panel began declassifying the documents almost 30 years after JFK’s death, many were missing. Some of those had been under the control of the all-powerful CIA counterintelligence chief James J. Angleton.

jesus angleton
Some believe that James Angleton, former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's counterintelligence division, destroyed a number of documents related to the Kennedy assassination. Harvey Georges AP

“I am convinced he destroyed everything because he knew it was coming. He knew he was going to get fired,” said Tunheim, in a lengthy interview in January. “I don’t know how he did it but he got rid of just about everything before he was gone because there were huge gaps in the record.”

That view is shared by Jefferson Morley, author of a new biography on Angleton called The Ghost. In an interview, Morley called “defunct” the official version that Oswald was a lone-wolf gunman who came out of nowhere to kill an American president.

“Oswald was under counterintelligence surveillance from 1959 to 1963,” Morley said. “Everywhere he went he touched CIA collection operations, code-named secret intelligence operations, whose product was delivered to Angleton.”

In the 1970s, congressional hearings showed how the CIA had misled the Warren Commission, which issued an exhaustive report in 1964. The CIA again came under fire for misleading the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

These missteps by the CIA, ostensibly aimed at hiding from public view how it carried out spy craft and meddled in the affairs of foreign governments, helped fuel today’s theories of “conspiracy and cover up,” said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst with the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Now, virtually every alternative theory of possible culprit and motive for the JFK killing seems to get new life with each release of documents.

Fidel Castro? Government documents show how the CIA sought to kill him, giving him a motive to retaliate. The mob? Files prove the agency worked closely with mobsters in Cuba and Chicago as they plotted to kill Castro. Texans in the CIA? Documents released last year showed that Earle Cabell, mayor of Dallas at the time of the killing, had actually been a CIA asset since 1956. His brother Charles was a top CIA official forced by Kennedy to resign less than a year before the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.


Minsk matters

As time was running out on his review board — which concluded its work on Sept. 30, 1998, with a lengthy report — Tunheim traveled to Minsk in Belarus and tried to copy the entire Oswald surveillance record.

“I was going to pay $100,000 for copying charges, I probably would have been criticized over that but it was such a gem of a file,” recalled Tunheim, adding that “I have seen many of them, I’ve had a lot of them read to me.”

But every time the review board came close to securing the Minsk files, tension with Belarus flared. Its leader then and now — Alexandr Lukashenko — is fiercely pro-Russian and has clashed with successive U.S. administrations.

oswald in minsk
American Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, pose on a bridge walk in Minsk during their stay in the Soviet Union. AP/Warren Commission

“We could never get it in the time we had available,” Tunheim lamented. “And that covers every damn thing that Oswald did over his three or so years in the Soviet Union. It’s an amazing file and there is a copy of it somewhere in the Kremlin files someplace.”

The review board did acquire about 500 pages of Minsk documents, many of them from author Norman Mailer who had been there first and acquired some for use in his famous 1995 book Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery.

What might the rest of those files contain? Much of it is likely mundane, but some JFK conspiracy theorists believe that Oswald was actually helping to train Cuban fighters while in Minsk. The files, now believed to be locked up in Russia, might also shed light on the KGB’s efforts to monitor Oswald once he returned to the United States.

Cuba libre?

One of the review board’s major accomplishments was releasing the files on Operation Mongoose — a Kennedy administration plot to overthrow and possibly kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Once the Mongoose files were made public, Tunheim had copies delivered to the Cuban interest section, which worked out of the Swiss embassy in Washington.

“The complete set of them, everything. We put together a box and said, ‘Send it to Fidel, your president,’” said Tunheim.

The hope was that goodwill would beget goodwill.

oswald cuba visa
A copy of Lee Harvey Oswald's visa application, released in 1978. Charles Tasnadi AP

“He wanted to meet but the State Department didn’t allow it,” the judge said, chalking it up to concerns that at the time no one wanted to run afoul of the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms.

The North Carolina Republican had co-authored legislation toughening the Cuba trade embargo. Relations were also frayed by the 1996 downing by Cuba of civilian aircraft operated by the anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue.

Some lower level meetings took place in the Bahamas, and the Cuban government shared some documents but told Tunheim’s team that it didn’t have much since “defending the revolution” took so much effort.

“Castro intuited right away that CIA propaganda assets were trying to blame the assassination on Cuba, and the records we now have confirm that,” said Morley, who is also editor of the website JFK Facts, adding that Cuba’s documents could shed light on anti-Castro groups. “They heard lots of talk, coming from inside the anti-Castro movement. What they heard after the assassination would be very interesting to know, and important.”

The JFK documents released by the National Archives last year confirmed the full portfolio of CIA activity designed to destabilize the Castro regime, and the extent of spying on the Cuban embassy in Mexico City.

Much of the spying effort was led by Texan David Atlee Phillips, a charismatic Fort Worth native whose alleged relationship with Oswald has also been the subject of speculation by conspiracy theorists.

David Atlee Phillips, retired Latin American chief of the CIA and former Fort Worth resident, in 1975. Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection;Special Collections;UT-Arlington Libraries

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, on Oct. 4, 1975, reported that Phillips told a local gathering that he was “reasonably convinced” Oswald had acted alone.

But Cuban exile leader Antonio Veciana has maintained for years that Phillips, using the assumed name Maurice Bishop, was Oswald’s handler, and that he saw the two together in Dallas a month before the assassination. Now elderly and in ill health, Veciana told McClatchy in December that he stands by his account.

Phillips, who died in 1988, was a high-level CIA official in Cuba before and after Castro’s arrival in power. Transferred later to Mexico, he was tasked with watching all traffic and calls into and out of the Cuban and Soviet embassies.

And that’s where the U.S.’s southern neighbor fits into Tunheim’s view that important answers may still come from abroad.

Fresh Mex

Some of the most significant documents left classified for the bulk of the 25-year timeframe and released last year deal with Oswald’s trip to Mexico City weeks before the assassination of Kennedy.

During that timeframe, Oswald’s calls to the Cuban and Soviet embassies are believed to have been recorded. Tunheim recalled being told by the CIA that the recordings were not thought of consequence at the time and were recorded over.

“We know they existed at some point in time. I also know that our deal with the Mexican government was that they got a copy of everything we recorded,” said Tunheim, adding that “I am convinced that that probably exists somewhere, whether someone has taken it home or it’s in a closet or attic someplace.”

Tunheim had seen documents showing that CIA leaders had either seen transcripts of or heard the actual recordings. He flew to Houston in 1998 to meet with CIA officials from the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, asking them to see what they could dig up.

“They promised to follow up and I never heard another word from them,” he said.

Among the calls that would be of greatest interest is the intercept of Oswald’s Oct. 1, 1963 call with Valeriy Vladimirovich Kostikov, described in documents released last year. Kostikov was not only a consul general, the documents said, but a KGB officer who had been part of Department 13 — the feared sabotage and assassination unit.

Just hearing Oswald’s voice would be important.

What little audio of Oswald that exists publicly comes from an interview he gave in New Orleans in a pro-Cuba protest. His limited on-camera footage features a brief denial that he killed Kennedy, calling himself “a patsy.” Two days after the JFK assassination, Oswald was fatally shot by Jack Ruby as he was led from his Dallas jail cell.

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