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More JFK-Assassination Files Unsealed
What Has the CIA Been Hiding for 60 Years?
People who have not studied the JFK assassination suspect that the most important documents about the murder of the president must be those still under lock and key at the National Archives. That makes sense. Why would the government keep files from the public unless they contained explosive revelations?
The truth is a bit more prosaic. It is clearer with every document release this year from the National Archives — 422 on April 13, 355 on April 27, and 502 on May 11 - that much of the information the CIA has fought to keep secret for so long revolves around names of assets and agents, locations of the agency’s stations abroad, and often minutiae about some of its off-shelf international operations.
In writing about new files last year, Michael Isikoff concluded, it “only underscores the point that what has been hidden from the public is largely about highly sensitive agency collection activities and exotic plans for operations that, while in some instances highly embarrassing and by today’s standards indefensible, bear little if any relevance to the crime itself.” I echoed the same sentiment in my article about the files the Archives released last month.
The 502 documents released on May 11 contain little information about JFK’s murder. “They are not significant,” Professor Robert Reynolds, one of a handful of assassination researchers who study and follow the documents in detail, told me in a recent email. They either “have nothing to do with the assassination, or bear on it in only the most marginal, tangential way.”
The lack of relevance to the assassination is in part a problem stemming from the wording of the 1992 law that Congress passed in response to Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-fueled JFK. It called for a new agency, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), to collect and review “all Government records relating to the assassination of President Kennedy.” To minimize the chance of missing anything important, the ARRB adopted a broad definition of what records related to the assassination.
For instance, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) reinvestigated the case from 1975-1978, it wanted the CIA’s files about a group of more than dozen Cold War American defectors to Communist countries.1 Comparing how the government treated them in relation to Oswald — who had defected to Russia in 1959 — might show whether Oswald had gotten special treatment. Any evidence of special handling would lend credence to the theory that Oswald might have been an American intelligence asset. The ARRB ruled that all documents the CIA gave to the HSCA about the defectors were automatically “records relating to the assassination.”
When it disbanded in 1998, the ARRB issued a final report and transferred all the files it had gathered to the National Archives. The goal was that the Archives would make them public, without any redactions, no later than 2017. Both President’s Trump and Biden, however, agreed with CIA requests to keep several thousand files redacted.
There has been a lot of conspiracy speculation surrounding the defector files, especially a much anticipated, unredacted copy of the CIA’s 1962 debriefing of Robert Webster. I wrote about Webster in Case Closed, when discussing Oswald’s repatriation to America: “Some mistakenly assume that since Oswald had defected, it was difficult for him to obtain permission to return to the U.S. But the process was routine. Records show that within two months of Oswald’s return, two other American defectors to Russia also returned. One of the Americans, Robert Webster, was an even more extreme case than Oswald in that Webster had successfully renounced his American citizenship. He was repatriated as a Soviet alien under the USSR’s immigration quota for 1962 and his application to return to the U.S. took less time than Oswald’s. By 1963, thirty-six defectors to Communist countries had come back to the U.S.”
The Archives released Webster’s debriefing file in full last week.
Below are sections that were unredacted, compared to what had previously been kept secret (highlights are mine)
The CIA’s battle to keep portions of the Webster debrief from public view turns out to have nothing to do with Oswald. What had been redacted were identities of the CIA staff in the agency’s Soviet division program and the names of intelligence assets.
Besides the Webster debrief, Professor Reynolds pointed me to some other “noteworthy” releases from the House Select Committee on Assassinations files, “primarily the release in full of several depositions.”
The Archives released, for instance, the unredacted copy of the 1978 HSCA deposition of David Phillips, the CIA’s former chief of Latin American and Caribbean Operations.
It answers what was blacked out in one section. Again, the CIA fight for secrecy was not related to Oswald or the JFK assassination, but instead was about the CIA’s 1970 decision to move its Brazil Station from Rio De Janeiro to Brasília.
The HSCA also questioned James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s Chief of Counterintelligence, in 1978. The latest Archives release includes his unredacted deposition. What the agency had fought to keep hidden was the name Reuben Efron, someone involved in reports about UFO’s possibly being spotted in Russia in the 1950s.
Another long-awaited release was the deposition of Charlotte Bustos (questioned under her alias, Elsie Scaletti). She worked on the CIA’s Mexico Desk. What had been secret until May 11 was the location where she had been Chief of Station (Port of Prince, Trinidad) and the countries she oversaw (Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador). Also, two names appear to be revealed in the questions asked of Scaletti, however they were unredacted in previous document releases.2
Another much anticipated document is the 1976 HSCA interview of Anna Tarasoff, a CIA translator who listened to some of the recordings the agency had of Oswald while he was in Mexico City. What had been kept sealed again had nothing to do with Oswald. It was instead the address and telephone number of James Zambernardi, the person who ran the CIA's photographic observation post outside the Cuban Consulate in Mexico City in 1963. Also redacted was the name and address of Zambernardi’s wife.
A final noteworthy document in the May 11 Archives release is a short interview with Paul Garbler. He was the first CIA chief of station in Moscow in 1961, a time when Oswald had applied to repatriate to the United States. The information now unsealed discloses the number of people (40 to 50) assigned to the “Legal Travelers” program, a project by which the CIA tried to recruit Russian-speaking students and travelers visiting Russia. The document also unveils the number (SR/9) for the CIA’s “internal operations” Russian branch.
The National Archives is working hard to make a June deadline to release the remaining 3,062 JFK files. Only then will it be possible to determine with certainty if the majority follow the same pattern as the thousands released in the past year. There will be a lot of public disappointment if the files ultimately have less to do with the assassination of the president and are more about concealing small details from the agency’s decades-old covert operations.
Records indicate that between 1958 and 1960, fourteen Americans defected to Communist countries. One went to East Germany, two to China, and eleven to Russia, four of those with their wives.
In a surprisingly number of JFK assassination documents released by the National Archives, researchers discover some of the newly unredacted information was already public. Assassination researchers informally dub them “zombie redactions.”