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Home/Articles/Civil Liberties/Crawling Out of the Swamp

Crawling Out of the Swamp

America should urgently address decades-old sins.

Photo of Lee Harvey Oswald with rifle, taken in Oswald's back yard, Neely Street, Dallas Texas, March 1963. The photo was Warren Commission exhibit 133-A. (Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

“Draining the Swamp” remains an overwhelmingly popular political proposal, even if precisely defining “the Swamp” remains tricky. It is, by nature, a nebulous shapeshifter. But the traditional Swamp—a layer of corrupt, self-serving government officials in league with corrupt, self-serving corporate grandees—has taken on a further dimension in the eyes of an increasingly cynical American public by merging with the “deep state.”

We live in a moment when Tucker Carlson, the host of a major TV network news program, alleges that the National Security Agency has been spying on him and his team. Carlson recently discussed mass spying on U.S. citizens with civil rights lawyer Harmeet Dillon. “For the last 20 years, since 9/11, I and other civil libertarians have been screaming about the Patriot Act and other laws,” Dillon explained. “Dating back to 1947, our security laws have said that spying may only be on foreigners, not on American citizens.”

With due respect to Dillon and Carlson, the precedent for the deep state spying on U.S. citizens long predates the terror attacks of September 2001. For example, in the early 1950s, a nationwide CIA operation, LINGUAL, began intercepting and opening Americans’ mail. Originally targeting only correspondence to and from the Soviet Union; by 1973 the operation had long been opening domestic mail too. Americans’ current mistrust of their own government—such as that voiced by Carlson—is arguably rooted in security state shenanigans some six decades ago.

The deep state’s long legacy of abuse of the public trust includes, as a matter of policy, ongoing concealment of facts connected to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. No credible poll has ever indicated that a majority of Americans believe the government-approved version of the crime, which speaks volumes about levels of public mistrust in government. It is no exaggeration to say that the cover-up facilitated by the ad hoc presidential panel known as the “Warren Commission” may have irreparably damaged U.S. society.

The government-approved version of the killing, still encapsulated in the Warren Report, holds that Lee Harvey Oswald—a disturbed, Communist-sympathizing ex-Marine—acted completely alone, with no ties to the “national security state.” Because there is no longer any doubt that U.S. intelligence has always concealed the true nature and extent of its relationship to the accused assassin, this conclusion remains controversial. President Kennedy was one-third of the federal power under our nation’s supreme law, and a healthy republic can never shrug off widespread suspicion that its head of state was murdered with the complicity of its intelligence apparatus. Every decent American, conservative or liberal, should care that their government is still hiding information on our country’s greatest unhealed wound.

Even those dismissing any notion of conspiracy don’t dispute that the CIA withheld vital information from the Warren Commission during its 10-month investigation. Indeed, there was always more to Oswald than met the eye. The 1960 shoot-down of a U-2 spy plane in the USSR occurred strikingly soon after Oswald defected there, having only recently operated radar systems at a U-2 base in Japan. But whether a lowly private knew anything sensitive about U.S. military operations when he loudly surrendered his passport at the U.S. embassy in Moscow is beside the point. His proclaimed readiness to furnish the Soviets with valuable information should have triggered a heightened security alert in the event he ever returned to America.

Yet two and a half years later, Oswald was allowed to resettle in Texas free of any arrest, detention, or interrogation, and the U.S. government even lent him money. This can’t be chalked up to incompetence. In his book, Oswald and the CIA, former military intelligence officer John Newman suggests that Oswald may have been what is referred to in intelligence circles as a “dangle.” That is, the ex-Marine had been used in the USSR as “bait” in a mole-hunting operation conducted out of Langley. Since Oswald’s marriage to a Soviet citizen and life in the USSR had, according to the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division, generated “operational intelligence interest” in the defector, his trouble-free repatriation looked like an example of “special treatment” to say the least.

Jefferson Morley, author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, concludes that Oswald’s dossier was manipulated at the Agency’s highest levels both before and after the assassination. When the CIA station in Mexico City alerted Washington that Oswald had visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies there in late September and early October 1963, the response was: forget about it. CIA officials had already quietly taken Oswald off the “persons of interest” list and had also removed from his security file all reports (including the FBI’s) on his activities since returning to America. CIA officers in Mexico City, desperately trying to find out what Oswald had been up to for the previous year and a half, were deliberately kept in the dark.

When the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) investigated Kennedy’s murder in the late 1970s, the CIA retained so much control over access to its records that it rendered the investigation a damp squib. Lead investigator Gaeton Fonzi wrote in his memoir, The Last Investigation, that HSCA chief counsel Robert Blakey was so determined to push an “Organized Crime conspiracy,” he arranged for the CIA to review all information supplied to the Committee prior to publication, to avoid a “skirmish with the Agency.”

The CIA even assigned as its liaison with Congress a man who had himself, it later emerged, supervised a CIA operation implicating Oswald. CIA officer George Joannides had been charged with directing the Cuban Students Directorate (DRE), a hardline anti-Castro Cuban exile group based in America, and with monitoring Oswald. In August 1963, the DRE had a run-in with Oswald in downtown New Orleans, where the re-defector was posing as the local head of a Castro-appeasing organization called the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). He was famously caught on film provoking a fight with DRE agitators by handing out self-printed FPCC flyers in their midst.

In fact, Oswald never represented the FPCC in any official capacity, and his antics mortally damaged that organization. Not long after Joannides had diverted HSCA investigators away from eyebrow-raising CIA connections to Oswald, he was awarded the Agency’s Career Intelligence Medal. A photo secured by Morley under the Freedom of Information Act in 2007 shows him receiving it.

The HSCA’s weak-kneed inquiry fed public mistrust. A Gallup poll taken around the time director Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK was released indicated only 10 percent of those surveyed believed the Warren Commission’s “lone gunman” verdict. The JFK Records Act of October 26th, 1992, then established the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) to compile all available evidence on the assassination and file it in the National Archives. Some of the ARRB’s most interesting work concerned conflicting evidence related to the autopsy on Kennedy, but also the short film recorded by a spectator, Abraham Zapruder, capturing the fatal hit. A top ARRB analyst concluded that, long before it was first televised in the mid-1970s, the “Zapruder Film” had been altered in a CIA film lab in a mostly hapless effort to reduce the obvious impression that Kennedy was struck from the front.

The Agency’s relationship to Kennedy’s accused assassin remains obscure because, despite an act of Congress, the CIA can block release of files. The CIA still controls key files on top officers tied to the killing. One, William Harvey, was head of the ZR/RIFLE project, designed to form partnerships with the Mafia to carry out assassinations. Harvey’s top Mafia confidant disappeared just before he was scheduled to testify before the HSCA and was later found dead, dismembered and floating in an oil drum off Miami.

President Trump made a surprise, last-minute decision in October 2017 to delay publication of a critical mass of files until October 2021 on the grounds of “national security” and to protect “those still living.” A quick survey of “those still living” in October 2017 includes a nonagenarian ex-president, famous as the only American who couldn’t remember where he was when Kennedy was killed. George H.W. Bush had not only been a CIA employee but also happened to be in Dallas at the time, it emerged much later. In 2017, was Trump protecting the patriarch of a political dynasty that had undermined him since before his presidency?

The new deadline approaches this year, but as Morley has noted, a “loophole” in the 1992 law allows continued retention and redaction in the interests of “national security,” meaning concealment could continue ad nauseam. Meanwhile, the “special exemption” continues emboldening the “national security state” in the kind of Swamp-like chicanery Tucker Carlson rightly denounces.

Until conservatives and liberals alike start caring about the Swamp’s history (including the Warren Report), Americans cannot roll back its power. Nancy Pelosi’s committee to investigate the riot of January 6 has arguably generated more ridicule than interest because so few have faith in the truth or justice of its conclusions. Such public cynicism about parti pris truth-seeking panels dates to 1963.

Chad Nagle is an attorney and communications consultant based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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