Last week, US president Donald Trump released more than 3,000 classified documents relating to the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Some of the documents — all of which were released online — raised the frightening spectre of possible nuclear war.
One document that attracted particular attention was a report that the FBI forwarded to the White House on November 23, 1963, the day after the assassination. The report said Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin, visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City on October 1, 1963, and met vice-consul Valeriy Vladimirovich Kostikov.
The CIA had been keeping a particularly close watch on the vice-consul’s activities with “an FBI-controlled double agent”. Kostikov had been at the embassy since September 1961 and, on the day after the assassination, the report to the White House indicated that the CIA believed he was the KGB’s officer “responsible for sabotage and assassination”.
Some of the released documents were kept secret for years because they would have exposed the CIA’s illegal activity in Mexico. The agency had, for instance, been sifting through trash from the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, as well as bugging and taping all the embassy’s phone calls. In addition, it was secretly photographing all visitors to the Soviet compound. Thus, they had tape recordings of the phone calls Oswald made to the embassy, as well as photographs of him when he visited.
This, of course, immediately raised the frightening fears that the Soviets were behind the assassination. Another recently released file contained a report forwarded to the White House on December 2, 1966 by J Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI. This report indicated that the CIA was aware from the outset that the Soviets suspected the assassination was part of a coup by the “ultra-right” in the US.
They thought those elements were exploiting anti-communist sentiments in America to undermine relations with the Soviet Union, in order to open the way for the US to attack Cuba.
“As a result of these feelings, the Soviet Union immediately went into a state of national alert,” said the report. The Soviets feared “some irresponsible general in the United States might launch a missile at the Soviet Union”.
As far as the Russians were concerned, Oswald had gone to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City to secure a visa to return to the Soviet Union. He had gone to Russia in October 1959 and tried to defect, but the Russians considered him “mentally unstable” and told him to return to the US, whereupon he slashed his wrists. He was then allowed to remain through the intercession of the Red Cross, and he married a local girl, Marina Prusakova, and settled in Minsk until June 1962, when he returned to the US with his wife.
After the Kennedy assassination, Anatoli Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, gave the State Department a complete Soviet file on Lee Harvey Oswald. This included his Russian hospital records.
From the outset, the Americans were aware the Russians were alarmed over Kennedy’s assassination. President Lyndon Johnson used this to pressure Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to preside over the commission to investigate the assassination. Warren initially refused, but Johnson persuaded him by warning there was a real danger of nuclear war.
In the 1966 report, the CIA mentioned that “the KGB was in possession of data purporting to indicate President Johnson was responsible for the assassination”. Johnson needed Warren to deflect attention from himself.
Warren, a former Republican governor of California, was the political antithesis of Johnson. Nobody would ever suspect him of being in cahoots with that cowboy from Texas. Hence many people who would later become sceptical initially accepted the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy.
Of course, this is getting ahead of the story. On the day after the assassination, when the FBI forwarded the report to the White House about Oswald’s supposed meeting with Kostikov, Hoover telephoned Johnson at the White House to update him.
Johnson was tape-recording all his calls, so a verbatim transcript of Hoover’s call is now available.
“We have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet Embassy, using Oswald’s name,” Hoover said. However, the photograph did not look remotely like Oswald.
“That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man’s voice, nor to his appearance,” Hoover added. In short, it was not Oswald.
“The case as it stands now isn’t strong enough to be able to get a conviction,” Hoover warned.
Twenty-four hours later, Oswald was shot dead in a Dallas police station by Jack Ruby.
The FBI no longer needed to get a conviction. It just needed to convince the Warren Commission that Oswald was the lone assassin, and the commission credulously went along with the FBI and CIA.