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'Oswald's KGB handler': New JFK docs fill in some blanks on events around assassination

The JFK Assassination: A cast of characters

As new documents about the killing of President John F. Kennedy are released, The New York Times's Peter Baker walks us through who’s who in this American tragedy.
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As new documents about the killing of President John F. Kennedy are released, The New York Times's Peter Baker walks us through who’s who in this American tragedy.

Just months before President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Texas almost 55 years ago, an FBI field agent sent word back to headquarters on the activities of a Soviet sympathizer named Lee Harvey Oswald.

FBI agent James P. Hosty Jr. wrote to Washington that Oswald “reportedly drank to excess and beat his wife on numerous occasions.”

The memo, dated Sept. 30, 1963, is one of the 19,045 documents released Thursday in what was supposed to be the end of a declassification process that began the year after the Kennedy killing. A law signed in 1992 put it on a 25-year schedule to completion.

But after boasting on Twitter last year that he would release all the JFK assassination documents, President Donald Trump backpedaled last October, giving the CIA and FBI six months to work through the lifting of information still shrouded in secrecy.

That didn’t happen, to the chagrin of researchers and historians. On Thursday Trump gave the agencies until Oct. 26, 2021, to fully lift the veil of secrecy – almost 58 years after the events in Dallas.

The delays have helped fuel doubts by some who are fascinated with this period in U.S. history that Oswald was a lone, deranged gunman. Various theories, aided by the partial release of documents, point to the Cubans, the Russians, the mob, the CIA and anti-Castro groups unhappy that Kennedy did not invade Cuba.

"The past 25 years have taught us much more about the cover up than the crime itself, in particular the ways in which scary but false information about Lee Harvey Oswald created what might be termed a national security cover up," said Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, which runs a searchable online archive of JFK assassination documents.

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The truth is, though, that much of what is likely to be known is already out. Researchers hoped to see previously redacted portions of documents to help them form a more complete picture of the tragedy and how it evolved; they didn’t expect a bombshell.

In the case of Hosty, there is a backstory that came to be known only through the release of documents from multiple agencies.

In 1975, just three years after the nearly 50-year reign of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover came to an end, the bureau looked into rumors that Oswald had penned a threatening note to the FBI office in Dallas shortly before the assassination. No records were found, but Dallas agents said that Oswald had indeed left a threatening handwritten message.

Congressional investigators established that Hosty’s boss, Gordon Shanklin, demanded that he rip up the letter and flush it down the toilet — reportedly under orders from Hoover, who was incensed that the Dallas office had embarrassed the agency by not seeing Oswald as a threat. The former Marine had defected to the Soviet Union, but returned a few years later.

The report by Hosty to headquarters, with little held from public view on Thursday, makes clear that Hosty did tell FBI bosses that Oswald was violent and had been living and working as a maintenance man in New Orleans before moving to Dallas in the spring of 1963. And it confirms Oswald was under surveillance at the time of the assassination.

Another Hosty document, which also had been partially released earlier, has Hoover gushing praise for Hosty in 1971 for work he did as a field agent in Kansas City.

“Your performance relative to a matter of considerable importance to the Bureau in the security field is worthy of praise and warrants commendation,” Hoover wrote.

Thursday’s new documents offer nothing more on Earle Cabell, the mayor of Dallas at the time of assassination. A single document among the roughly 35,000 released last year showed that he’d been listed in CIA files as an asset, an explosive revelation. Cabell’s brother Charles had been a top CIA leader until a year before the killing.

The documents do, however, fill in some blanks about a Soviet Embassy official in Mexico City who met with Oswald weeks before the assassination. Over the decades Oswald’s meetings in Mexico City with the Cuban and Soviet embassies, purportedly to get a visa to Cuba in hopes of returning to the Soviet Union, have gradually been revealed.

One of the Soviets he had contact with was Valeriy Vladimirovich Kostikov. Little was known about his role, but the CIA confirmed to the original assassination investigators that Kostikov was likely part of the feared Department 13 assassination unit of the Soviet spy agency, the KGB.

It is now known that, at minimum, Oswald had phone conversations while in Mexico with Kostikov. Among the further-released documents Thursday were references to Kostikov being “Oswald’s KGB handler."

That’s found in a May 1982 memo from what appears to be an unidentified foreign intelligence agency or U.S. asset in the Middle East asking longtime CIA Soviet Division leader David Blee about Kostikov. The questioner notes that the Soviets were behind increased harassment of foreign embassies in Beirut -- less than a year before a truck bomb leveled the U.S. embassy there, killing 241 U.S. marines and military personnel.

“The reason for our interest in KOSTIKOV will be obvious,” writes the official to Blee. That document was one of more than 15,000 that Thursday were left with some form of partial redaction.

A number of documents relating to the Miami-based anti-Castro group Alpha 66 were included in Thursday’s release, as well. One curious one, dated February 1971, documents how the group outsmarted the FBI a year earlier. The FBI had raided its Miami offices and taken files.

“Apparently Alpha 66 had duplicates hidden because today duplicates of the files which the FBI removed are in their filing cabinets,” the memo from the CIA noted.

Alpha 66 had been headed by Antonio Veciana, who still resides in Miami and is elderly and in frail health. In an interview with McClatchy last year he reasserted that a top CIA Latin America official, David Atlee Phillips, had been working with Oswald to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro. His implication was that Oswald was trained to take out Castro but turned on Kennedy.

Another Miami-related document quotes an American journalist who had been imprisoned in Cuba in 1963 as hearing from a fellow prisoner that Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald just days after the Kennedy assassination, had frequented Cuba and had mafia ties on the island.

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