Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Dallas-Cuba Connection - 2009 Update


Documents released last week under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIPA) detail a secret CIA-National Archives (NARA)-State Department investigation of Cuban intelligence officer Fabian Escalante and reveal, among other things, that Escalante had an indirect connection to accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and that my revealing conversation with former Assassinations Record Review Board (ARRB) Executive Director Jeremy Gunn about the Escalante files was accurately reported in my 2008 book, Brothers in Arms.

In January 2006, the German Public Television network WDR aired Wilfried Huismann’s Rendezvous with Death, a 90-minute film exploring the Cuban connection in the Kennedy assassination on which I served as co-writer and investigator. Among the many new pieces of information we touched on was an allegation by President Lyndon B. Johnson aide Martin Underwood that CIA Mexico City Station Chief Winston “Win” Scott told Underwood that the Mexico station worried about unvetted reports that senior Cuban Intelligence operative Fabian Escalante, known as a “wet operations” or assassination specialist, had contact with assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City seven weeks before Kennedy’s murder, and that Escalante had flown into Dallas on the day of the assassination.

In my 2008 book (with Stephen Molton) Brothers in Arms: The Kennedys, The Castros, and the Politics of Murder, I discussed how this Escalante information, which first came to me in the 1990s, was turned over to the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) against Underwood’s wishes. During a 2003 dinner with former ARRB Executive Director Jeremy Gunn, years after the Board’s dissolution, I asked him what had happened to the information I gave him so many years before. I recorded the conversation and transcribed it that night. I included a verbatim transcript of that recorded conversation in Brothers (p.483):

GUNN: “The single most interesting part of the story is Mexico City, and the single most tantalizing lead we received was your report on Escalante, which we followed up aggressively. I went to CIA and saw their file on him [Escalante], which I can’t discuss because it’s classified. All I will say is that I saw some things there that made my jaw drop. Bottom line, follow Escalante, especially where he was before the assassination [that is, in Minsk and Mexico City]…After we asked for the file, the CIA perked up and took an interest in it. I don’t know what they did about it, but it was clear they hadn’t looked at it in years… I didn’t trust Underwood when he spoke to us and tried to water down what he told you about his meeting with Scott regarding Escalante. Underwood tried his best to put us off until we finally subpoenaed him.” [Emphasis added]

When the German film Rendezvous with Death debuted three years later, I was asked to come to the National Archives to show the film and talk about my research. Again, from Brothers (pp. 483-484):

After my film with Willi [Huismann], Rendezvous With Death, played on television networks in sixteen countries (but not in the US), I was asked to show the film separately to the National Archives JFK staff, the CIA declassification staff, and US Archivist Alan Weinstein and his staff. In all, some sixty government officials watched the film, most taking extensive notes. As a result, there was a swell of interest in declassifying the files on Escalante and other Cuban agents. Using back channels, official new demands have been sent to foreign governments to come clean with what they know. I have been informed that, during this process, Jeremy Gunn was brought in to give his version of the story, and he repeated almost word for word what he had told me in 2003. Other senior members of the ARRB have recently expressed their frustration at not being able to obtain the KGB’s encrypted file on Oswald, which they were offered for a price, before the offer was withdrawn. At this writing, they continue to lobby Washington officials to press for the material. The National Archives has been negotiating behind-the-scenes with the CIA since 2006 to fulfill their pledge to release files relevant the Cubans mentioned in the film, as well as the material Jeremy Gunn perused in the 1990s.

After Brothers was published in October 2008, and excerpted in American Heritage magazine, DC attorney Jim Lesar posted online an email response from Gunn, in which Gunn weighed in on my 2008 recounting of his statements to me five years earlier:

GUNN: “Part of the quote [on page 483 of Brothers] sounds about right but the part about "follow Escalante" is hyped and misleading. Sort of makes me realize that it's better to say nothing at all rather [than] see how others might hear it and then use it. Bottom line – I saw nothing in the file about JFK or the assassination.”

Hyped? As you will see, Gunn told NARA and the CIA in 2006 the same thing he told me three years earlier – namely, to follow Escalante. We know this because the CIA-NARA-State Department investigations of Escalante, and others named in the book and film, continued below the radar for over two years. Among other things, the investigation generated 236 pages of records – including their discussions with Gunn about my reporting – all of which (with the exception four pages withheld by NARA in full) I recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

According to the recently released records, two CIA and seven NARA officials interviewed Jeremy Gunn on March 28, 2006. Among other things, Gunn told them:

  • He read the CIA’s 201 File on Escalante. While Gunn was only given “limited access to the file at the CIA facility in January 1996. There was some discussion of a follow-up session, but it never took place.” The Escalante file “was always an asterisk in his [Gunn’s] mind.” Gunn “did not recall speaking with anyone else on the ARRB about the file…He thinks the issue was not completely resolved in his mind, hence the request for a follow-up visit.” [Emphasis added]
  • “While there was no evidence of contact [in the file], Escalante had an indirect connection to Oswald.” [Emphasis added]
  • Gunn was asked, if Underwood was not a credible source, how did he come up with the name “Escalante” in 1994 to give to me? Gunn didn’t have a direct answer, but a NARA official noted, “That is the one aspect of this issue that made Jeremy curious and continues to stick in his mind.” The NARA official later added one more thing: “The only thing that remained an open question in his [Gunn’s] mind (after reviewing the file) was the tangential connection to Oswald.” [Emphasis added.]
  • “Jeremy’s opinion was that NARA should re-review the Escalante file.” [Emphasis added.][Source: NARA Memo: “Notes From Our Meeting with Jeremy Gunn”; Steve Tilley to David Mengel, 3-28-06]
In other words, follow Escalante. In a recent conversation, a senior NARA official told me that Jeremy Gunn’s testimony played a key role in NARA’s decision to keep lobbying (in vain) for the CIA’s 201 Escalante file, and other materials, for over two years.

The Herculean efforts of the joint NARA officials, touched off by our film and Gunn’s interest in Escalante, while unable to pry the Escalante files from Langley, did produce other memos of interest:

  • In February 2006 US Archivist Allen Weinstein joined the lobbying effort, personally writing long letters to Nicholas Burns, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs asking that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice obtain extant Soviet and Mexican assassination records. That same month Weinstein wrote CIA Director Porter Goss asking for release of Escalante’s “201” file. Weinstein mentioned a handwritten record that notes the CIA has a file on Escalante in Mexico City prior to 1970. Although Weinstein might be referring to Underwood’s handwritten notes, he seems to be referring to something else, since Underwood’s notes make no mention of “a file on Escalante in Mexico City prior to 1970.” [Emphasis added]
  • On October 18, 2007, the CIA finally responded to the NARA requests, noting: “The JFK Collection at NARA contains the vast majority of documents found in Escalante’s 201 file that pertain to assassination related events, with the exception of a very small amount of information that was previously denied in full and must remain so until 2017.” [Emphasis added] [Source: Letter to Steve Tilley, NARA from Bruce Barkan, CIA Chief of Historical Records Collection.]
  • “A document in the [NARA JFK] Collection discusses the possibility that there were significant records pertaining to Escalante in Mexico City, especially for the period of 1963 to 1964…I understand that everyone at CIA is taking this matter seriously.” [Emphasis added][Source: NARA Memo of 2-14-06 meeting with fifty CIA personnel]
(For this writer, all the new Escalante revelations beg the question: was Jeremy Gunn placed in an uncomfortable position by Lesar’s email to him? In other words, Gunn would have to denigrate my reporting, or else admit his failure to report this important material to the rest of the Board, an embarrassing admission, to be sure. I have spoken in recent days with NARA officials who stated that the Brothers passage about Gunn’s word-for-word restatement to them in 2006 of what he told me in 2003 about Fabian Escalante is completely accurate. Given what is in the new FOIA release, I would argue that, if anything, I underplayed it. No “hype” necessary.)

  • NARA obtained a statement from archivist Vicente Capello, who oversees the Mexican Secret Police records we gained first access to for our film, Rendezvous with Death. Capello “confirmed the existence of a file [in the Mexican General Archive] regarding the supposed orchestration of the assassination of John F. Kennedy by Cubans inside Mexico. Mr. Capello declined to offer details about the document or say whether or not the president of Cuba, Fidel Castro Ruz, participated in the plot.” [Emphasis added] Capello noted that the JFK files had only been opened in 2002, and that Huismann and I were the first reporters who asked to see them.
  • Miscellaneous notes reveal that former ARRB Chairman, Judge John Tunheim, and ARRB member Anna Nelson played key, behind-the-scenes roles in trying to persuade the State Department and the CIA to pursue the records mentioned in Rendezvous. In one email, Nelson noted, “I think all of this is fascinating. Had the State Dept. not messed us up I think we could have gotten some documents from Minsk… [The filmmakers], especially since they are not American, probably had the kind of success we could never get. But of course these are absolutely crucial documents for the collection.” [Source: Email from Nelson to Tilley, 3-21-06]
  • In a NARA interview with Willi Huismann, the director noted that he had re-visited the main Cuban source, “Oscar Marino” (pseudonym), in 2006. According to a NARA email, here is what Huismann recounted: “[He] met with Marino, who had gone to see the film on his own and was quite pleased that he had participated in the project. Marino [is] concerned that Cuban G-2 [Cuba’s CIA] still after him and wants to keep his real identity under wraps. He’s afraid if Cuban G-2 locates him that he will be forced to sign an agreement saying that the interviews were not true and that he was paid one million dollars to participate in the film.” [Source: Email Marty McGann to David Mengel, 7-12-06]
Interesting, isn’t it? Marino was not afraid the Cuban G-2 might kill him. No, he was worried that the G-2 might force him to sign something that would discredit the filmmakers and deny the truth as he saw it. It’s worth noting again that Marino did not receive a penny for his participation. To the contrary, he refused to accept even taxi fare to the airport. One final footnote, Marino passed away in 2008. Efforts are underway to see if we can finally release his true identity.

For those who think that there is nothing new to be learned about the JFK assassination story, here’s a related tidbit to chew on.

Our 2006 film Rendezvous with Death utilized a current Soviet FSB source and a former Cuban intelligence officer, both of whom independently verified that Cuba’s initial contacts with Oswald in 1962 were broached by none other than Rolando Cubela, the Kennedy administration’s 1963 would-be assassin known as AMLASH. While our sources had no further information as to how the Cubela-Oswald contacts were facilitated, we had no doubts about their veracity.

After the publication of Brothers in 2008, I was made aware of a stunning piece of information that might offer a clue to the furtive liaisons: a December 30, 1960, FBI memo that details Cubela’s movements in Mexico City during that period. The document itself is not so surprising, but its location is: the CIA’s 201 File on Lee Oswald’s closest friend in Dallas – oil geologist and occasional CIA contact, George DeMohrenschildt, who had his own Cuban travels and contacts since his time working for the Cuban-Venezuelan Oil Voting Trust Company.

Literally no one at the FBI, CIA, or NARA can explain why a “Cubela in Mexico City” document should be placed in the CIA file of Oswald’s close friend. It of course begs the questions:
  • Did Cubela have contact with DeMohrenschildt? and if so;
  • Did DeMohrenschildt act as intermediary to his friend, Lee Oswald?
In early 2009, I obtained the relevant pages from NARA, with this explanation:

Dear Mr. Russo,

This is in response to your December 12, 2008, e-mail regarding a document from Rolando Cubela's 201 file that was also filed in George DeMohrenschildt's 201 file. I reviewed the two folders that you cited as well as two additional folders that were continuations of those folders. I did locate one document from Cubela's file that was also in DeMohrenschildt's file. It is a Department of Justice memo dated December 30, 1960 Re: Foreign Political Matters - Cuba. The document is located in RG 233, Segregated CIA Files Box 101, folder "64-50 Folder 22 [1 of 2] Cubela Secades, Rolando." The second copy is located in RG 233, Segregated CIA Files Box 13, folder "64-5 16B [2 of 2] DeMohrenschildt, George."


Special Access/FOIA Staff

Lastly, lest you forget, from my 2001 article with David Corn in The Nation:

“Fifteen hundred linear feet and fifty boxes of Robert F. Kennedy's classified and confidential papers are stored at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and most of the material is closed to the public. No other Attorney General walked off the job with such a trove of government paperwork. A partial guide to these records lists scores of intriguing files, including documents pertaining to Operation Mongoose, the CIA and Cuba, Edward Lansdale and Edward Murrow. (The guide also refers to Frank Sinatra files that contain "references to various gangsters, including [Sam] Giancana and others...including Judith Campbell," a JFK mistress.) But the Kennedy family considers these papers--many of which Robert Kennedy obtained from the CIA, the FBI or the State Department--the private property of his heirs. It strictly limits access to the records, which are being stored at government expense. Several eminent historians who have requested permission to examine this historical treasure--including Richard Reeves, Robert Dallek, Nigel Hamilton, Laurence Leamer and Seymour Hersh--have been turned away by the Kennedys. Evan Thomas was allowed to see only portions of the material. And Max Kennedy, a son of Robert and the person who oversees these records, did not respond to our request to look at the files for this story. Official papers RFK generated in the course of public business should be open to public inspection, and the release of classified government records that he took when he left office ought to be controlled not by the Kennedy family but by government declassifiers subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”

* * *

In summary, we now know: 1) the CIA is withholding assassination related records, especially those that note an indirect link between a known Cuban “wet operations” specialist and Kennedy’s killer until 2017 (in apparent violation of the JFK Records Act); 2) even senior government officials -- some being Presidential appointees -- have not been able to persuade the Agency to comply with the Act regarding these documents; 3) no one can explain why an AMLASH memo was placed in the CIA’s file on Oswald’s confidante; and (4) The Kennedy Library continues to deny access the largest Cold War government document reserves in private hands.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

New Reading Room Project at The Sixth Floor Museum


Corgan Associates, Inc., one of the largest U.S.-based architectural firms focused on planning and design, has been selected to design the new Reading Room for The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. Corgan will be renovating the former administrative offices in the former Texas School Book Depository, providing greater access to the museum’s growing collection of 35,000 items related to President John F. Kennedy and the events surrounding his assassination. The Reading Room represents the latest initiative by the nonprofit museum, which draws more than 325,000 visitors annually.

Offering unparalleled views into Dealey Plaza, the new Reading Room will be located on the first floor of the Dallas County Administration Building at 411 Elm. It will feature supervised access and assistance by collections/library staff to the museum’s library and research collections which includes nearly 5,000 volumes, 1,000 videos, more than 700 video-recorded interviews and public programs and some 2,000 historic magazines and journals.

“Corgan is excited to be a part of Dallas history, working with The Sixth Floor Museum to create a new space in a building that is ingrained in the memories of the city’s residents and tourists alike,” said Corgan Managing Principal, David Lind. “The Reading Room is a much needed addition that will now provide researchers and educators with a functional yet comfortable space to view the archived history that draws so many visitors to the museum each year from all over the world.”

“As we approach the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, the museum has renewed its responsibility to make its considerable resources available to students, educators and researchers,” says Nicola Longford, the museum’s executive director. “The Reading Room presents an excellent opportunity to showcase and expand our collections.”

The scope of the project also includes the Media Room, a renovation of the southeast corner meeting space in the former Depository. The Media Room will serve a double function as the space will be shared with Dallas County employees. The renovated space will serve as both a meeting/conference room and, thanks to new appropriate lighting and improved acoustical performance, as a permanent place to continue the Museum's Oral Histories project.

The Reading Room is scheduled to open in November 2009.