CIA Spyhunters Knew Lee Harvey Oswald Was in Dallas Days Before JFK’s Assassination

On Nov. 15, 1963, the staff of legendary CIA counterintelligence master James Angleton learned that Oswald ensconced in Dallas. President Kennedy had seven days to live.

CIA Spyhunters Knew Lee Harvey Oswald Was in Dallas Days Before JFK’s Assassination

Hulton Archive/Getty

On or around Monday, Nov. 2, 1959, the CIA’s counterintelligence office—run by the fabled spy hunter James Angleton—first learned the name of man named Lee Harvey Oswald.

Jane Roman, his liaison officer with other federal agencies, received her daily call from Sam Papich, her counterpart at the FBI. Papich asked her about a story that appeared on page A7 of the Saturday Oct. 31, Washington Post:

Ex-Marine Asks

Soviet Citizenship

The wire service story reported that a 20-year-old former Marine from Texas named Lee Harvey Oswald had shown up at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and announced his intention to renounce his U.S. passport and become a citizen of the Soviet Union.

Papich wanted to know more. When Roman received a cable from the State Department about Oswald, she scrawled on the top. “Mr. Papich would like to know about this ex-marine who recently defected into the U.S.S.R.” She routed the cable to a colleague who might have answers.

Two days later, Roman received another cable on Oswald, this one from the Office of Naval Intelligence. ONI had responsibility for Oswald because he had recently been discharged from the Marine Corps. “Something of special interest,” the sender wrote to Roman.

Oswald was an obvious target for the Counterintelligence Staff. It wasn’t unheard of for Americans to move to Moscow in 1959 but it was unusual. Few, if any of the American defectors had ever announced their intention to give the Russians classified military information. Roman routed the cable about Oswald to Angleton’s Special Investigations Group, an office which was responsible for keeping files on defectors.

A thousand days later, Oswald would become world famous when he was arrested for shooting President John F. Kennedy, a crime which he denied responsibility.

Ever since the CIA’s handling of information about Oswald has been a story shrouded in deception and perjury, theories and disinformation, lies and legends. But at least one aspect of the role in the story cannot longer be disputed: Angleton’s office controlled the CIA’s file on Oswald for four years: from his defection in October 1959 until his death in November 1963.

Angleton, a legendary spy master known his genius, paranoia, and penchant for raising orchids, would conceal this fact for the rest of his life. He hid it from the Warren Commission and he obfuscated it with congressional investigators in the 1970s. The full story only began to emerge when Congress ordered the declassification of long secret JFK assassination records in the 1990s. With the scheduled release of the last of those records, the full story may finally be coming into view.

The truth is that Oswald was the object of CIA interest from the moment Jane Roman took the call from Sam Papich. For the next four years, Angleton relied on Special Investigations Group to monitor his movements. Birch O’Neal, the chief of the SIG, was a former Guatemala station chief who supervised a staff of eight people, including Elizabeth Ann Egerter, master of the office filing system. Egerter directly controlled the Oswald file.

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Betty, as she was known, liked to describe SIG as “the office that spied on spies.” SIG was dedicated to exploiting the actions of defectors. As Angleton explained in a staff directive, SIG “maintains and uses sensitive counterintelligence holdings including certain Comint [communications intelligence] and defector materials to match these against operational and personality data and thus to derive operational leads.”1

In plain speech, you could say Angleton’s staff used information about defectors obtained via wiretaps or other illicit means to support covert operations against the Soviet Union.

Needless to say, Angleton was interested in people like Oswald. His name was ultimately added to CI/PROJECT, the office that opened the mail of Americans overseas who were of interest to the CIA. That made Oswald, the former Marine radio operator, a member of a special group—one of three hundred Americans whose international mail was opened, copied, and filed for future use.

Why did Angleton do this? As he told the FBI, the purpose of the mail opening program was “to identify persons behind the Iron Curtain who might have some ties in the U.S. and who could be approached in their countries as contacts and sources for CIA.” 2 A note card, declassified in the 1990s, provided the details: “Recent defector to the USSR—Former Marine.”

From the start, Oswald’s name was an “operational lead,” someone who might prove useful in secret counterintelligence activity.

The proof of Angleton’s interest in Oswald emerged in the Counterintelligence Staff’s unusual handling of his defection. Standard CIA procedure for collecting information on a defector like Oswald required the opening of “personality” file, known in the lingo of many federal agencies as a “201 file.” The CIA’s Central File Registry had tens of thousands of 201 files, some fat, some thin. Some were crammed with classified information. Other consisted only of newspaper clippings. Oswald, an ex-Marine with a security clearance who had threatened to share military secrets with the Soviets, certainly qualified for a 201 file.

Angleton’s people knew that. Jane Roman and Betty Egerter didn’t have to read the latest edition of the Clandestine Services Handbook to know that a 201 file should be opened on persons “of active operational interest at any given point in time.” They also knew the informal three-document rule: As soon as the agency received three incoming reports on a person, it was time to open a 201 file. 3

Oswald qualified on every count. Nonetheless, the Special Investigations Group chose not to open a file on him. Instead, the CIA’s Office of Security opened a file on the itinerant ex-Marine on Dec. 9, 1959. The Office of Security, responsible for securing CIA property and vetting CIA personnel, is one of the most secretive offices within the clandestine service. This file, labeled OS-351-164, then became the repository of all the information that the agency received about Oswald. 4

Needless to say, the Office of Security did not create Oswald’s file without consulting their colleagues on Angleton’s staff. CI/SIG served as “a liaison office between CI Staff and the Office of Security,” Egerter later explained to congressional investigators. “We worked very closely with the Office of Security.” 5 In the case of Oswald, the unusual procedure had to be approved at higher levels. Robert Bannerman, who served as deputy director of the Office of Security in 1959, told historian John Newman. “Jim Angleton was in on this.”

Angleton’s interest in Oswald was finely tuned. 6 The effect of creating an Office of Security file, instead of a 201 file, was to insure information about the ex-Marine was held more tightly. For Angleton’s counterintelligence purposes, an OS file had clear advantages over a 201 file. A 201 file was accessible to anyone in the Directorate of Plans who had a clearance to draw from the Central File Registry. By contrast, an OS file could not be seen by anybody outside of Office of Security and the SIG.

The unusual handling of the Oswald file coincided with Angleton’s growing fear of KGB penetration.. The unexplained compromise in October 1959 of Pytor Popov, a military intelligence officer who served the CIA’s top spy in the Soviet Union, ignited Angleton’s fear of mole within the Agency, according CIA historian David Robarge. The closely-held Oswald file insured that if someone inside the agency—say a KGB mole—wanted to know more about the ex-Marine whose defection the Washington Post had reported, they would have to ask for his file in writing—and provide their name, office, and phone number. By creating a restricted OS file, and not a 201 file, for Oswald, Angleton could determine who in the ranks of the CIA was interested in him. Angleton, it seems, used Oswald’s file as bait for the mole whom he thought had betrayed Popov.

Angleton did not lose interest in Oswald after he was admitted to the Soviet Union and settled in Minsk. In October 1960, the State Department asked CIA for records on all recent defectors to the Soviet Union. The notice came attached with a list of known defectors, one of whom was Lee Oswald. That missive, according to the CIA’s account, prodded the Counterintelligence Staff to act. In December 1960, a year after Oswald’s defection, Betty Egerter completed the paperwork to create a 201 file for Oswald. In the process, she inexplicably gave Oswald the wrong middle name, labeling the file “Lee Henry Oswald.” 7

More important than the name on the file was its contents. Egerter took all the material that was collected in the OS file and transferred it to the new file, identified as 201-289248. The Oswald file now contained a dozen items: four documents from State Department, two from the CIA, two from FBI, one from ONI, and three newspaper clippings. 8

The mole hunt was the most sensitive of Angleton’s operations, which is why he put Egerter in charge of the Oswald file. All new information on Oswald was routed to Egerter. In June 1961, for example, the mail-opening team read a letter written by Oswald’s mother, Marguerite.

“This item will be of interest to Mrs. Egerter, CI/SIG, and also to the FBI,” said the cover memo on the stolen letter.9

Neither the CIA nor Angleton shared this early interest in Oswald and his family with the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of JFK Not until the mid-1970s did people start to ask questions. In 1978 an attorney for the House Select Committee on Assassinations put the question to Angleton. Given the agency’s standard procedures, he asked, what could explain the thirteen-month delay in opening Oswald’s 201 file?

“I don’t know the circumstances,” Angleton replied. “I don’t know why it would take that long.”10

This denial is unconvincing, if not deceptive. The declassified record shows that Angleton did know the circumstances. He had created the SIG to track defectors. He was alarmed by Popov’s disappearance in late 1959 and he worried about moles. He had put Oswald’s name on the mailing opening list. The declassified records are compelling evidence that Angleton wanted to monitor the ex-Marine defector closely and guard all information about him.

In the coming years, Angleton did not lose track of Oswald. The ex-Marine married a Russian woman in Minsk, Marina Prusakova, but soon tired of the rigidity of life under communism. He returned to the United States in June 1962. When an FBI agent interviewed Oswald at his home in Fort Worth Texas, in August 1962, his report was sent to J. Edgar Hoover in Washington who forwarded a copy to Angleton’s office. A routing slip shows that Betty Egerter signed for it.

Angleton almost certainly read it. Oswald was in a small group of U.S. servicemen who had defected to the Soviet Union. He was in an even smaller group of defectors who had returned to the United States and he was virtually unique in having a Russian wife. Given Angleton’s deep and abiding fears of subtle KGB stratagems for penetrating U.S institutions, the counterintelligence chief would not have ignored the Bureau’s latest report on a possible communist spy.

Oswald’s domestic activities were reported to Angleton. When Oswald was arrested for tangling with members of the CIA-funded Cuban Student Directorate in New Orleans, two FBI reports on the incident were sent to Jane Roman, Angleton’s long-time aide. The reports described Oswald as a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro-Castro group targeted by the CIA and FBI for harassment and disruption.

Oswald’s foreign travels were reported to Angleton. When the ex-Marine adventurer travelled to Mexico City in late September 1963 he visited the Cuban Consulate and Soviet Embassy seeking visas to travel to both countries. The CIA’s audio and photo surveillance operations detected his presence immediately. On Oct. 8, the Mexico City station sent a cable to Langley seeking more information about a man identifying himself as “Lee Oswald.”

Naturally, the query was forwarded to Angleton’s staff. On Oct. 10, Betty Egerter and Jane Roman drafted a reply summarizing the contents of Oswald’s 201 file, but curiously omitting mention of his recent arrest or his involvement with the FPCC. The draft cable was sent to William J. Hood, the chief of operations in the Western Hemisphere, who approved its contents. Tom Karamessines, the assistant to deputy director Richard Helms, approved sending the cable. Angleton’s name does not appear on the Oct. 10, 1963 cable about Oswald but he surely knew of and did not object to its contents. Angleton’s power was such that none of these people would have sent a message to the Mexico City station about an ex-defector without Angleton’s knowledge.

In 1994, I interviewed Jane Roman, retired and living in Washington DC, about the contents of the Oct. 10, 1963 cable. Did it indicate some sort of operational interest in Oswald’s file?”

“Yes,” Roman replied. “To me it’s indicative of a keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need-to-know basis.”

When I interviewed Bill Hood, retired and living in Amagansett, New York, about the cable, he told me he didn’t think it was “smelly.”

“I don’t see any master hand in it,” he said.11

On Nov. 15, 1963, Roman signed for another FBI report on Oswald, this one from the New Orleans office. Oswald had returned from Mexico City, reported senior agent Warren DeBreuys, and was living in Texas.

There’s no proof that Angleton read the cable but there’s no reason to assume he didn’t. The counterintelligence chief would have surely been interested in the former defector to the Soviet Union whose movements his staff had monitored for four years and who had just made contact with presumed Cuban and Soviet intelligence officers in Mexico City. Whether or not Angleton read the FBI report, Roman’s initials on the FBI report confirm a stunning fact: Angleton’s staff learned on Nov. 15, 1963 that the ex-defector Lee Oswald was living in Dallas. President Kennedy had seven days to live.

Jefferson Morley is author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press), from which this article is excerpted.