Interview: Jeff Morley (Ex-Washington Post Reporter)

jeff morley

Author and former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley has for many years looked into some of the strange events that surround accused Presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Jeff Morley is currently the moderator of the excellent website JFKfacts.org. We wanted to talk about the JFK assassination on Radio Parallax given that November 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the event.

Jefferson Morley wrote a book about Winston Scott, the CIA’s Mexico City station chief who was in charge in September of 1963 when Lee Oswald showed up to visit the embassies of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Our Man in Mexico, Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA provided a curious angle for discussing the mysteries that surround the assassination. In addition to reporting about the JFK case, Jeff Morley has become a participant of sorts. He was the plaintiff in the lawsuit – Morley vs CIA – which attempted to secure the release of secret JFK records.

Interview by Douglas Everett, host of Radio Parallax. A weekly radio show covering science, history, politics, current events, and other topics. Tune in every Thursday 5:00PM to 6:00PM on 90.3 fm or online at kdvs.org.

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DE: Jefferson Morley, welcome to radio parallax.

JM: Thank you Doug, it’s great to be here.

DE: I want to start out by noting that Our Man in Mexico is one of the best books written about the JFK case, even if you approached THAT subject somewhat indirectly . Can we talk a little about who Winston Scott was, and who he was connected with since he was one of the “old boys” of the CIA’s Old Boy Network.

JM: That’s what attracted me. About 15 years ago, a friend of mine came to me. He said he had a client with an amazing story, and I should write a story about it. That was the son of Winston Scott, Michael Scott. Michael is a filmmaker in Los Angeles, and he shared with me the story of his father. You’re right, Win Scott was one of the founding personalities of the CIA. That really interested me. He was comparable, in the early days of the CIA, to well-known figures like Richard Helms and James Angleton. These people have had books written about them, yet nobody had ever written a book about Scott. That drew me to him. Also, that he had this interesting role in the JFK assassination in 1963.

Scott served as the station chief in Mexico City for 13 years, which is an unprecedented reign for a station chief in the history of the CIA. I don’t think anybody served in one job for that long except for him. He was a remarkable character in terms of the history of The Agency. I decided early on that I was not going to write a book about the Kennedy assassination, I felt there had been so many books about that (and there are so many imponderable and disputed questions) that it was difficult to construct a narrative around that.Win Scott, by contrast, was a remarkable character, an interesting man with a complex and rich personal life, married 3 times with a family and so I decided I would simply tell his story. And so yes, I do approach the story of the JFK assassination somewhat indirectly. By looking at Nov 22nd 1963 thru the eyes of a top CIA officer, I think I kind of got a fresh perspective on the events. I was not trying to decipher the eternal question of “Who Killed Kennedy?” but rather understand what does this event look like thru the eyes of somebody who was well-placed and loyal to the CIA? Win Scott was somebody who represented the institutions’ thinking and traditions and personality in every way. I think that’s what Our Man in Mexico does. It does not present MY theory of the assassination. After a while I came to think; who cares? What matters is what Win Scott thought. He was there. I wasn’t.

DE: Fair enough

JM: The heart of the book is the JFK assassination. At least four chapters in the middle of the book cover the events of 1962 to 1964 in detail. We see what the visit of Lee Harvey Oswald to Mexico looked like from Win Scott’s view. Scott had Oswald under surveillance. That was his job. What did that mean when this same man was arrested for shooting the President? Scott was onto Oswald BEFORE the assassination, so he was part of the story too. He was also there AFTER the assassination; part of the investigation and the confusing, secretive aftermath of the assassination. That’s what the story of Win Scott really tells us. I think you’re right, it does give a unique window onto the death of JFK.

DE: Let’s make a slight detour to explain to listeners some needed background. Before he turned up in Mexico in fall of 1963, Lee Oswald got into some very public conflicts with an anti-Castro group in New Orleans. This group was called the DRE. Please give our audience a bit of background about that group, because it surfaces again in your narrative later.

JM: Part of what drew me to Win Scott were the larger questions: what did the CIA know about Oswald? and when did they know it? Also, to understand the personalities, structure and functioning of the CIA. You are right. Two months before the assassination Oswald gets into a series of public encounters with this anti-Castro group in New Orleans.

What I found when I began to look into these incidents was that Lee Harvey Oswald’s antagonists among these anti-Castro exiles had been members of a group funded by the CIA. They were a prominent and influential anti-Castro organization called the Cuban Student Directorate, or DRE [the initials of their English translation]. The DRE consisted of students from the University of Havana who had taken up arms against the Castro government as it turned towards one party Socialism in the early 60s. The CIA funded this group.

I thought it interesting that Oswald, when he gets into these encounters in New Orleans, had stumbled (uncannily) into a CIA-funded operation. A separate track of my reporting has been to try and explain THAT, and find out more about how it worked, and why that came to pass. That’s what led, eventually, to my lawsuit against the CIA which I filed ten years ago. I was seeking the records of a undercover CIA officer named George Johannides. Mr. Johannides happened to be the case officer for the DRE, the CIA officer who handled the contacts with the group – passed money out on one hand, and  received intelligence and information on the other. I had to figure out: what did George Johannides think about these encounters between Oswald and his anti-Castro students? That has been another line of inquiry for my reporting.

I haven’t written a book about it – at least not yet – but that’s what I’m trying to get at. Trying to understand those events. To put in the bigger picture what was going on with the CIA and Lee Harvey Oswald before Kennedy was killed.

 DE:  These threads we are following: both Winston Scott, and George Johannides, get reunited in the person of yet another individual we must ask about. David Phillips worked under Win Scott in Mexico and ran the covert operations, apparently. Phillips was a  capable spy in his own right, and plays a big role in this story. Tell us about him.

JM: David Phillips – exactly – is the connective tissue here. Phillips was a charismatic, clever covert operator. He made a name for himself in the CIA’s coup in Guatemala in 1954. He then played a prominent role in the CIA-sponsored invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961. By 1963 he was running anti-Castro operations out of Mexico City. When Oswald came to Mexico City, Phillips was one of the people who picked up on him. Winston Scott and David Phillips talked about who Oswald was and what their response should be. Phillips was one of those CIA people who knew about Oswald before the assassination.

Phillips was also, perhaps coincidentally (or perhaps not) to his job running anti-Castro operations. He was effectively the supervisor of George Johannides. If we can picture a hierarchy of the CIA, David Phillips is running anti-Castro operations from Mexico City, and George Johannides stationed in Miami was an underling. Johannides was not a senior officer in the same way Phillips was. He was more of a man in the field who responded to the directions of his superiors. So yes, David Phillips connects the two strands of this story, in terms of Oswald’s contacts with the CIA before the assassination.

 DE: After Oswald made his visit to Mexico City – about which much has been written – Win Scott, the CIA’s Station Chief asks for information about this young man from headquarters. The data that comes back from CIA headquarters appears to be deliberately misleading. For example they don’t provide a photo of Oswald. You also point out in the book, and this is most curious, that the data they sent to headquarters from Mexico was widely circulated among the top people in the CIA. BOTH of these aspects; the withholding of data, and the high level of interest in Oswald, cry out for some explanations.

JM: The story gets more interesting when Win Scott picks up on Oswald and is asked for more information about him. Scott is told a fair amount about him. The CIA had a big file on Oswald. They knew A LOT about him. They knew he had been in the Soviet Union. They knew he had married a Russian woman. They knew he had returned to the US. They ALSO knew that he had been in the fight with the anti-Castro students in New Orleans, but that was one thing that they did NOT tell Win Scott.That, I think, is very significant.

There was something about those encounters in New Orleans that the CIA hierarchy – the brass in Langley – chose not to share with Win Scott. In my book, I came to the conclusion that Win Scott had been sort-of deliberately left out of the loop on Oswald. There were people in headquarters who knew a lot about Oswald, but they did NOT share all they knew with their colleague in Mexico City. I think that’s a place where we begin to see the breakdown of Presidential security that occurs in Dealey Plaza.

If Win Scott had known about Lee Oswald’s scuffles in New Orleans, I think he would have made a big deal about it. He would have demanded more answers. He would have followed up to find out more about what Oswald was up to. Win Scott was that kind of guy. He was an aggressive Cold Warrior. He would go after (and had a voracious appetite for) information about people whom he perceived as security threats. He surely WOULD have perceived Oswald as a security threat if he had known that he was fighting with members of a CIA-funded group in New Orleans. Win Scott was kind of left in the dark. I think that’s a significant event.Six weeks later, the President is killed and this whole incident has to be buried, and it IS buried! Nobody really knew about it – at least not in the kind of details that I was able to write about it in Our Man in Mexico – for 30-35 years. The veil of secrecy around these events is part of the story.

Something was going on here. It was something very sensitive, and something that the Agency did not care to disclose to any investigators of the assassination. We can see the outlines of a VERY significant story here. That is not the same as saying we have an explanation. The CIA does not want to talk about it. The Agency does not answer questions about it, and has been pretty unresponsive even under the threat of litigation and the lawsuit that I filed against them. The CIA is still maintaining a tremendous amount of secrecy around these events. The challenge is to pierce that veil and figure out what was going on with Oswald and the CIA before JFK was killed.

 DE: Jeff, this is where the story gets truly interesting. JFK is assassinated. Oswald is now under intense scrutiny – by the world. FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover himself would complain that the truth about Oswald’s recent visit to Mexico was being withheld by the CIA. Winston Scott does send what photos and tapes they have to Dallas [from  surveillance of Oswald's encounters with the embassies] and one of the most jaw-dropping aspects of the case follows. The authorities look the photos, listen to the tapes and quickly conclude they are not of the man in custody in Dallas.

JM: Right. The official story is that that was a mistake. That they weren’t certain who the person they had a picture of was. They were just guessing that it was Oswald. Knowing how the CIA operates, that explanation is possible, but hard to credit. That does not seem like it was an accident. That’s one of the unexplained things.

The larger point, that you’re absolutely right about is, the CIA begins to pull all this information in and hold it closely and not share it, not even with the FBI, not even with J Edgar Hoover. Hoover senses this right away, and is angry because he feels that the blame for the assassination may come to fall on him or the Bureau. The assassination of the President creates tremendous pressure within the FBI and the CIA to cover up and to hide all that had been known about Oswald while JFK was still alive.

DE: There are many theories about what happened regarding JFK’s assassination. Many think there was a conspiracy involved. It turns out, as you discovered, the very first proposal that this WAS a conspiracy comes, oddly enough, from the DRE, whom we talked about earlier. Oswald was portrayed by the DRE, as a communist-hired assassin and linked to Fidel Castro. This took place during the weekend of the assassination.

JM: George Johannides’s allies in the DRE encountered Oswald. They have publicized his pro-Castro ways [that Oswald really WAS pro-Castro is hotly disputed by many researchers].They’ve denounced him on the radio, on TV, and in print. The DRE issued a press release about Oswald. All about this thoroughly obscure guy. When this thoroughly obscure guy is arrested for killing the president three months later, the leaders of the DRE have a lot of information about him. They have a world historic scoop on their hands. So [after the assassination] they immediately start calling reporters saying, “We know who killed the President, it was a Castro supporter”.

What the reporters didn’t know (and what the Warren Commission didn’t know) was that the DRE was an instrument of the CIA. The DRE was responsive to its money and its control through the person of George Johannides..This anti-Castro Cuban student group, the DRE, are the first to say that the assassination was the work of Fidel Castro and Lee Harvey Oswald. This is the first JFK conspiracy to reach print as far as I can tell, and it happens within about 24 hours of the assassination when the DRE put out a publication with the headline “The Presumed Assassins” over a picture of Oswald and Castro. There is your conspiratorial scenario: Castro was responsible, and it’s paid for by the CIA within 24 hours of the assassination! This is a remarkable story that has not been fully explained.

When I sued for the records of Johannides, the heart of what I was trying to figure out was, what did this CIA officer think about this? His allies in this group [the DRE], his proteges with whom he was very sympathetic and supportive, had contact with the man who apparently killed Kennedy. Did HE think it was a conspiracy? Did he think Oswald was a lone nut? What DID he think? That was what I was trying to figure out through my lawsuit. Thanks to CIA obfuscation, we have not gotten any clear answers to that question. But it’s clearly a very sensitive question, still, for the CIA. The lawsuit has proven that beyond a reasonable doubt.

DE: Another sensitive issue we should mention, because maybe have never heard about it, is that Dave Phillips, Winston Scott’s right hand man, the covert ops guy, after the assassination comes up with a witness who incriminates Oswald directly. He says, “I saw him accept money at the Cuban embassy”. Win Scott asks the Mexican authorities to grill this witness, and his story fall apart. It’s very odd.

JM: Dave Phillips vouched for that witness, a man named Gustavo Alvarez, who had become an informant for the CIA in Nicaragua. When Alvarez came forward with that story and approached the US Embassy, the Embassy referred him to the CIA. The CIA gave him a look, and it was Phillips who said “I think this guy’s credible”. So that story came to the fore thanks to David Phillips. That story was very alarming to both Hoover and Lyndon Johnson. A report that Oswald had taken money from the Cubans implied that Oswald was acting at the behest of the Cubans. This might require, or justify, or raise the specter of, US retaliation against Cuba for killing the President. The threat of war with Cuba was at a time when the Cuban missile crisis was only a year in the past. That was a very frightening event in which the world came close to nuclear war, probably closer than it ever has at any time.

The idea that Castro might have been involved in the assassination was  alarming. But, those reports are actually originating with CIA assets in Miami, with the DRE, and in Mexico City with Phillips’ asset Gustavo Alvarez. That is striking – that this story is emanating from CIA-influenced sources within hours of Kennedy’s assassination.

 DE: I want to ask you about some work you did with military intelligence analyst John Newman. The two of you asked CIA people about some of these memos that were going back and forth within the CIA after Oswald’s visit to Mexico. You guys thought that there might be some evidence of counterintelligence people – James Angleton the head of CI and some of his deputies involved in some of this. When Scott passed away, Angleton showed up at the house to clean out his safe. Michael Scott and others were curious about what was in that safe. By some accounts may have actually included photos of the real Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico.

JM: I came to the conclusion that there WERE probably photos AND tapes of Oswald in Win Scott’s safe that were seized. But yeah, to go back… early on I joined up with John Newman, who had been a career army intelligence officer. I learned a tremendous amount from him about how US intelligence agencies really function, and not in the Hollywood JFK-conspiracy theme, where mysterious CIA men fly around the world and do strange things. That’s really a false image.

The CIA is a government bureaucracy, governed by rules, traditions and practices that can be understood, though not readily shared with outsiders. If you do research you can begin to understand how they worked at that time, and I learned a tremendous amount from John. We came to focus especially on the role of the counterintelligence staff of the CIA. They were involved in ALL these Oswald incidents with CIA assets.

The counterintelligence staff was run by James Angleton [a rather legendary CIA figure]. That was the entity within the CIA which controlled the access to Oswald’s file. Understand, as a bureaucracy, the CIA is governed by strict rules. It wasn’t like anybody could walk in and see Lee Harvey Oswald’s file before the Kennedy assassination. That was a very closely held file – held by the counterintelligence staff. When Win Scott asked CIA headquarters about Oswald, the question was referred to this same counterintelligence staff.

It’s clear from looking at the records that in the CIA’s pre-assassination knowledge of Oswald, the CI staff is central. The people working for Angleton are the people who know the most about Oswald in the weeks before Kennedy was killed.

DE: Jeff, I was at Duquesne U. last month and heard your talk about how much relevant material’s out there. How much should still be released. Can we talk about what is out there, and what you’d most like to see released?

JM: Two things. One, I sued for the records of George Johannides. In the course of that litigation, the CIA  acknowledged holding 295 documents about Johannides’s  career that they say cannot be released in any form. Of those 295 documents, about 50 concern his actions in 1963 when he was running the DRE, and in 1978 when he’s called out of retirement to serve as the CIA’s liaison with congressional investigators, who have reopened the JFK case.

[Though Johannides was intimately involved with the anti-Castro Cubans who had fought with Oswald, that fact was withheld from the House Select Committee on Assassinations when he was made a liaison to the CIA for the HSCA]

Johannides has TWO appearances in the JFK story. Those files from those years, I think, are the sum of the things that I would most like to see, because they would shed light about what he knew about Oswald – and when he knew it.

There’s also, we now know, 1,100 CIA documents related to the assassination that have been withheld in their entirety. They will not be released until 2017 (at the least). The CIA says that those documents are not believed relevant to the assassination. I don’t doubt that that is in large part true. A lot of those documents probably do not have any direct relevance to the assassination, BUT…. a small group of them DO.

For example, there’s 600 pages of operational files from David Phillips that have never seen the light of day. There’s a couple hundred pages on Anne Goodpasture (who was the woman who worked for Win Scott in Mexico City). There’s a couple of hundred pages on E. Howard Hunt, CIA officer based in Miami in the early 1960s. Hunt, as you may know, made some sort of murky statements possibly implicating himself in the JFK story, at the end of his life.

I would guess that there is at least 3,000 pages of material on different personalities in the CIA who figure in the CIA story in one way or another, that have never seen the light of day. Again, I would say, out of those, I would say some of them may not be relevant to the assassination at all, but I think that some of them probably do shed light on the nature of CIA operations around Oswald between 1959 and 1963. I think that information could clarify the story of the assassination for us, and might even provide some decisive clarification.

I think that one thing we may be looking at when we ponder this mystery, what’s going on here, is a covert operation involving Lee Oswald that has never been disclosed. Someone among these CIA officers in anti-Castro operations (or in counterintelligence operations) had selected Oswald for some kind of intelligence operation. Perhaps it was discrediting the pro-Castro movement in the United States, or infiltrating the pro-Castro movement. And once Oswald was arrested for killing the President, the CIA decided this could never be made public.

I think that’s a possibility and if I’m wrong I’d be glad to be proven wrong. Either way, the CIA should release the information and we’ll know if there’s something incriminating there – or if it’s exculpatory. Either way, we should get those records 50 years later. There is no serious national security information in these files.This information might be embarrassing to the CIA, but it doesn’t pose any threat to the safety of the American people now. This is 50 years ago, involving Cuba, a country that doesn’t threaten the United States, and the Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. There is really no reason for the CIA to be hanging on to this material. This extraordinary secrecy that still surrounds these CIA officers – all of whom are now deceased, by the way – seems absurd. If it’s not absurd, then it’s very sinister. Either way the CIA should release this material right away.

DE: I can’t resist tacking on one addendum to the question I just asked. About people you’d like to see documents released on. I know you have stated that William Harvey was someone you’re curious to find documents about. I want to throw his name out there, and have you give people a bit of illumination of who he was.

JM: Bill Harvey was a very important personality in the early days of the CIA. A longtime colleague of Winston Scott’s. He is significant in the JFK story for two reasons. First, the CIA wanted to create a capacity for assassination. In 1960, they turned to Bill Harvey and put him in charge of it. He was known as a guy who could get things like that done. He was an efficient officer with incredible energy, a phenomenal memory, and a tremendous capacity for espionage – including assassinations!

The second thing is, by 1963 his open contempt for President Kennedy and his brother cost him his job in the CIA. Harvey was demoted in mid-1963, precisely because the Kennedy brothers had had enough of him, and his vociferous  unsparing criticism of their policies. Harvey is another one of those people for who there are 123 pages of an operational file that remains secret. He is a key figure in this whole story, and we still don’t have full disclosure around his activities.

DE: For more information I recommend the book we have been talking about: Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA.  Jeff, thanks for speaking with us again, and I hope that we can bring you on in the future, maybe talk about some new documents as they come out.

JM: Thank you for having me, Doug. It’s a pleasure