“A Little Incident in Mexico City”
Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested less than an hour and a half after the assassination of President Kennedy. Very soon after his arrest, two pieces of background information reached government circles in Washington:
- Oswald, a self–declared Marxist and former marine, had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. He had threatened to renounce his US citizenship and to pass on secrets he had obtained while working as a radar operator for the U2 spy plane operation. He had returned to the US in 1962.1
- Between 27 September and 3 October 1963, Oswald had been in Mexico City, where he had contacted the Soviet Embassy and the Cuban Consulate several times by telephone and at least five times in person.2
Soviet and Cuban Involvement
The Soviet and Cuban diplomatic compounds in Mexico City were being thoroughly monitored by the CIA, which possessed tape recordings and transcripts of Oswald’s telephone calls, as well as photographs of Oswald as he went in and out.3
Oswald had applied for a visa to allow him to visit Cuba, and had enquired about obtaining a visa to visit the Soviet Union. More ominously, he had met and spoken by telephone to Valeriy Kostikov, a Soviet diplomat who was strongly suspected of being an agent attached to the KGB’s Department 13, which was in charge of assassinations and sabotage.4
The obvious implication was that the man accused of assassinating President Kennedy was in some way associated with the Soviet or Cuban regimes. This implication was strengthened when the FBI discovered shortly after the assassination that, two weeks earlier, it had intercepted a letter apparently sent by Oswald to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, in which he claimed that he had met Kostikov in Mexico City.5
Oswald in Mexico City: the FBI’s Discovery
The FBI learned on the afternoon of the assassination that it had not been kept fully informed by the CIA of Oswald’s activities in Mexico City. To remedy this, two sets of evidence were sent by the CIA station in Mexico City to the FBI in Dallas, arriving early on the morning of 23 November:
- At least one tape recording of a phone call by a man claiming to be Oswald.
- Several photographs of the only non–Hispanic man to enter the Soviet compound on the date of Oswald’s meeting there with Kostikov.6
FBI agents in Dallas made an unexpected and ominous discovery: neither the voice on the recording nor the man in the photographs matched the man who was in custody. Someone had impersonated Oswald in Mexico City.7
Oswald’s Assistant or Impostor
Although there was good evidence that Oswald had in fact made at least one visit to the Cuban Consulate and one to the Soviet Embassy,8 several other encounters provided strong evidence that he had also been impersonated:
- In two telephone calls to the Soviet Embassy, a man claiming to be Lee Harvey Oswald spoke “terrible, hardly recognizable Russian”, according to the CIA’s translator. Oswald himself spoke Russian very well.9
- The man who made the incriminating phone call to Kostikov had also phoned from the Cuban Consulate three days earlier, on Saturday 28 September. In this instance, not only was Oswald impersonated but the phone call or the transcript appear to have been fabricated. The Cuban Consulate and the switchboard at the Soviet Embassy were closed on Saturdays. Silvia Durán, an employee at the Cuban Consulate, who was mentioned by name on the transcript, denied that she had taken part in the call on the 28th.10
- Silvia Durán and the Cuban Consul General, who had had three encounters with a man who claimed to be Oswald, both recalled that the man they met looked nothing like either the real Oswald or the man in the photographs.11
Knowledge of Oswald’s Contacts
Oswald’s apparent contacts with the Soviet and Cuban representatives in Mexico City were reported by the news media, and gave rise to two competing conspiracy theories:
- either the assassination was the result of a communist conspiracy,
- or it was a conspiracy by elements sympathetic to the US state to blame the Soviet or Cuban regimes.
Knowledge of Oswald’s Impersonation
The details of Oswald’s impersonation, on the other hand, were kept secret from the general public.12 The transcripts and recordings of the telephone calls were tightly controlled by the CIA station in Mexico City, and most of the recordings appear to have been erased within a short time of the assassination.13
J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and other Washington insiders were aware of the impersonation, and of its implications, early on the day after the assassination. It was clear that there was no innocent explanation: either Oswald had had at least one accomplice in Mexico City, or he had been impersonated without his knowledge. Either he was working for the Soviet or Cuban regimes, or he had been manipulated in order to implicate those regimes in Kennedy’s assassination.
The Political Effects of Oswald’s Impersonation
The existence of an impostor in Mexico City both undermined the idea that Oswald alone had killed President Kennedy, and turned the idea into a solid political necessity.
The Implausibility of the Lone–Nut Theory
The conspiracy in Mexico City involved Oswald, either as a member or as a victim. The apparent association between Oswald and Kostikov implied that the conspiracy was connected to the assassination of President Kennedy. The notion that Oswald, despite being centrally involved in this conspiracy, had actually planned and carried out the assassination all by himself, was surely recognised in Washington to be far too much of a coincidence to be true.
The Political Necessity of the Lone–Nut Theory
It was clear to knowledgeable insiders that both of the competing conspiracy theories created severe threats to established political institutions:
- either the US security system had failed to prevent a communist conspiracy,
- or some elements of the US security system were complicit in the assassination.
Although, as Hoover put it, the evidence against Oswald was “not very, very strong,” the lone–nut explanation became the only expedient solution to a serious political problem.14
The Promotion of the Lone–Nut Theory
Once Oswald himself was murdered, and the burden of proof dramatically reduced, it became practicable to avoid an honest investigation into the assassination.
A report was commissioned from the FBI, but the news media felt that it would be unable to convince the public of Oswald’s guilt without having a more objective source on which to rely. The Warren Commission was set up, and was given the task of endorsing the idea that Oswald, acting for inscrutable personal motives, had been the lone assassin. The Commission proceeded to assemble a case for the prosecution. The print and broadcast media gave the Warren Report a huge amount of almost entirely uncritical coverage, and the political institutions survived.15
Nuclear War, Oswald and the Warren Commission
The apparent collusion between Oswald and the Soviet and Cuban regimes, if established, would have led to pressure for military retaliation. The need to defuse the danger of a nuclear war provided President Johnson with a bargaining tool. When pressing the reluctant Senator Richard Russell to serve on the Warren Commission, Johnson mentioned how he had managed to persuade the equally reluctant Earl Warren to play his part in promoting the lone–nut solution: “I just pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City.”16
The Man in the Mexico City Photographs
It is unclear whether the man in the photographs was the man who was claiming to be Oswald:
- At least one of the photographs was taken after the impersonation was over and Oswald had returned to the US.
- Silvia Durán and Eusebio Azcue López, two members of the Cuban Consulate who encountered an impostor, both claimed that he did not resemble the man in the photographs.
The CIA’s Knowledge of Oswald’s Identity
Many years later, it became clear that deliberate deception had taken place. When the CIA station in Mexico City sent the photographs to the FBI in Dallas, individuals within the station had known for several weeks that the man depicted was not Oswald:
- The station was able to compare photographs of the real Oswald with those of the impostor. Photographs were taken of every foreign visitor entering and leaving the diplomatic compounds. The real Oswald seems to have made at least one visit to each compound, and so must have been photographed at least four times.17
- The station had been told by headquarters that the man in the photographs was not Oswald. On 9 October, a few days after the photographs were taken, the station alerted CIA headquarters to the visit of the man claiming to be Oswald: “Have photos male appears be American entering Sovemb 1216 hours, leaving 1222 on 1 Oct. apparent age 35, athletic build, circa 6 feet, receding hairline.” Headquarters consulted the genuine photographs and personal information in its file on the defector. It replied by cable the next day, stating that, on the contrary, the 23–year–old “Oswald is five feet ten inches, one hundred sixty–five pounds, light brown wavy hair, blue eyes.”18
“A Keen Interest in Oswald” Before the Assassination
Not only were individuals within the CIA’s headquarters and Mexico City office aware of Oswald’s identity, but they were of course aware also of the significance of a US citizen making contact with communist officials. According to one of the CIA officers who helped to issue the cable from headquarters to Mexico City on 10 October, the reply revealed that the agency possessed “a keen interest in Oswald on a need–to–know basis” just six weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination.19
The Management of Oswald’s Impersonation
The impersonation of Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City could only have been organised by people with knowledge of the CIA’s surveillance of the Soviet and Cuban diplomatic compounds; in other words:
- the Soviet regime,
- or the Cuban regime,
- or the Mexican government,
- or the US security system.
The destruction of evidence and the transmission of false evidence could only have been organised by people with inside access to the CIA station in Mexico City.
- Warren Report, p.655.
- Warren Report, p.658. For a detailed account of Oswald’s visit to Mexico City, see John Newman, Oswald and the CIA, Carroll and Graf, 1995, pp.352–91.
- According to Winston Scott, the head of the CIA station in Mexico City, “persons watching these embassies photographed OSWALD as he entered and left each one; and clocked the time he spent on each visit” (Russ Holmes Work File, 104–10419–10314, p.14, NARA). For the extent of the CIA’s surveillance, see Oswald, the CIA, and Mexico City (the López Report), pp.24ff. Contrary to certain official sources, the CIA’s Mexico City station knew about Oswald’s visits to the Cuban Consulate before the assassination, and passed this information to headquarters. Scott stated that “every piece of information concerning Lee Harvey Oswald was reported immediately after it was received to: US Ambassador Thomas C. Mann, by memorandum; the FBI Chief in Mexico, by memorandum; and to my headquarters by cable; and included in each and every one of these reports was the conversation Oswald had, so far as it was known. These reports were made on all his contacts with both the Cuban Consulate and with the Soviets.” See Winston Scott, Foul Foe, pp.268f, quoted in Newman, op. cit., p.416.
- For Oswald’s dealings with Kostikov, see Newman, op. cit., pp.356–62. For the CIA’s belief that Kostikov was associated with the KGB’s sabotage and assassinations department, see NARA RIF no. 104–10436–10025.
- Although the letter (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.16, p.33 (Commission Exhibit 15)) refers to “Kostin”, it is widely assumed that “Kostin” was in fact Kostikov; see Warren Report, p.309.
- One photograph was published by the Warren Commission: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.20, p.691. Several others have since been widely published; see e.g. Robert Groden, The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald, Viking Penguin, 1995, pp.245–9.
- J. Edgar Hoover gave the news to President Johnson early on the morning after the assassination: “We have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet Embassy, using Oswald’s name. That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man’s voice, nor to his appearance. In other words, it appears that there is a second person who was at the Soviet Embassy down there” (Johnson to Hoover, White House Telephone Transcripts, 23 November 1963, LBJ Library, Austin, Texas). The recording of this call was erased, and a transcript survived only by luck; see Rex Bradford, ‘The Fourteen Minute Gap,’ at history–matters.com. Later that day, Hoover reported the evidence of an impostor to the head of the Secret Service: HSCA Report, pp.249f.
- Oswald’s Cuban visa application form, dated 27 September 1963, contains his signature and photograph, and must have been obtained from the Cuban Consulate: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.25, pp.814ff (Commission Exhibit 2564). Valeriy Kostikov believed that he met the real Oswald at the Soviet Embassy on 27 September, according to the memoirs of his Vice–Consul; see Newman, op. cit., p.355. Against this, HSCA investigators were told by CIA assets who had worked inside the Cuban Consulate that the majority of the employees within the consulate doubted that Oswald had visited the building; see Gaeton Fonzi, The Last Investigation, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1993, p.294.
- “Terrible, hardly recognizable Russian”: NARA RIF no. 104–10052–10084. Three other phone calls, made on 27 September, in which a fluent Spanish speaker enquired about obtaining a visa to visit the Soviet Union, were originally thought to have been the work of an impostor. Because Oswald knew very little Spanish, and the speaker does not mention Oswald by name, these calls are now generally considered not to have any relevance to the Oswald case. For a list of all the phone calls, see López Report, p.117.
- For a transcript and discussion of the 28 September phone call, see Newman, op. cit., pp.364–8.
- For Durán and Eusebio Azcue López, the consul, see Fonzi, op. cit., pp.289f, and HSCA Report, appendix vol.3, p.136.
- The impersonation was first documented in the HSCA’s López Report in 1978. The López Report was only made available to the public in 1993, and even then several passages were withheld. The censored material included “another section of this final report dealing with whether or not Lee Oswald was an agent or asset of the Central Intelligence Agency” (López Report, p.142). The Warren Report’s necessarily incomplete account of Oswald in Mexico City can be found on pp.658ff and pp.730ff.
- The telephone calls now survive only as transcripts. One call, in which an English–speaking man identifies himself as Lee Oswald, no longer exists even as a transcript; see Newman, op. cit., pp.369–75. Official sources claimed that all the recordings had been erased before the assassination, but documents released three decades later show that this was not the case. Some recordings existed at the Mexico City station shortly after the assassination, and copies had been sent to Washington as soon as they were made. An unpublished staff report of the Church Committee in 1976 quotes a cable sent by an FBI officer in Dallas three days after the assassination: “If tapes covering any contact subject [Oswald] with Soviet or Cuban embassies available forward to Bureau for laboratory examination. Include tapes previous reviewed Dallas if they were returned to you” (NARA RIF no. 157–10014–10168). At least one recording seems to have existed as late as April 1964, when it was listened to by two representatives of the Warren Commission. For the existence of the tapes, see ARRB, CIA Testimony, p.147 and Fonzi, op. cit., pp.286f.
- Hoover’s acknowledgement of the weakness of the case against Oswald: Johnson to Hoover, White House Telephone Transcripts, 23 November 1963, LBJ Library, Austin, Texas.
- The FBI report (Warren Commission Document 1) turned out to be extremely superficial; it spent only 200 words on the details of the assassination, and failed to mention all of the wounds. For the Warren Commission as a political tool and a public relations exercise, see Katzenbach’s memo to Moyers et al. and Alsop to Johnson, White House Telephone Transcripts, 25 November 1963, 10:40am, LBJ Library, Austin, Texas. For the workings of the Warren Commission, detailed criticism of the Warren Report’s case, and criticism of its media cheerleaders, see the sources mentioned in the Fiction, Propaganda and the Media section.
- In Johnson’s words, “Warren told me he wouldn’t do it under any circumstances … wouldn’t have anything to do with it … and I said let me read you one report … and I said OK … there’s a million Americans involved here … I just pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City.… And he started crying and said, well I won’t turn you down … I’ll just do whatever you say”: Johnson to Russell, White House Telephone Transcripts, 29 November 1963, 8:55pm, LBJ Library, Austin, Texas.
- For the extent of the surveillance, see note 3 above. The López Report concluded that, contrary to early official claims, there was almost no chance that Oswald’s visits would have been missed by the cameras; see López Report, pp.91–3. The cameras were tested and were working correctly on 26 September, the day before Oswald arrived in Mexico City: ibid., p.18. Several CIA employees believed that photographs of Oswald existed: ibid., pp.94–106. The chairman of the HSCA, Louis Stokes, alleged in 1978 that the CIA was withholding photographs of Oswald: NARA RIF no. 180–10140–10175. Along with the recordings of the phone calls, the photographs of Oswald at the compounds no longer exist.
- The reply from CIA headquarters is available online at http://www.ourmaninmexico.com/documents_oswald.html. Despite sending this truthful description to Mexico City, CIA headquarters passed on the incorrect description to the FBI, the Navy, and the State Department; see Newman, op. cit., pp.398f.
- See Jefferson Morley, ‘What Jane Roman Said, part 3’ at history–matters.com. CIA headquarters obscured its “keen interest in Oswald” by withholding from the Mexico City station the fact that it was aware of the incriminating activities which Oswald had undertaken in New Orleans a few weeks before his trip to Mexico City. For more about Oswald’s apparent undercover work in New Orleans, see The Career of Lee Harvey Oswald.