More Mexico Mysteries

Rex Bradford
May 2002

It is difficult to overstate the importance of what is usually called the "Oswald in Mexico City" affair. Certainly the topic was an important one to the CIA—probably a third of the roughly 45,000 pages in the Russ Holmes Work File collection of CIA documents are devoted to it. The Mexico City story is important because it shows that there was a sophisticated operation which served to "set up" Oswald prior to the assassination, something beyond the wherewithal of Mob figures or anti-Castro Cubans acting alone. It is also important because it finally provides an explanation for why men like Earl Warren, who certainly weren't part of any conspiracy and normally wouldn't engage in such a stark cover-up, were put in the position where they did so. Mexico City is indeed the Rosetta Stone of the JFK assassination.

The most easily understood aspect of the Mexico City affair remains the tapes of an Oswald, who apparently was not Oswald, calling the Soviet Embassy in late September and early October of 1963. John Newman spoke in some detail about these at the 1999 November in Dallas conference, and discussed some of the evidence which shows that the FBI did indeed listen to these tapes in the early morning of November 23, 1963. They determined that it wasn't Oswald's voice on the tapes, an inconvenient fact that began to be covered up that evening, even before Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby.

The Non-Oswald Tape

President Lyndon Johnson
White House Photo
LBJ Library


The conversation in which FBI Director Hoover informed the new President, Lyndon Johnson, about this, has itself been erased, as I discovered a few months after Newman's talk [see The Fourteen Minute Gap]. In this conversation, a transcript of which survives, Hoover told LBJ:

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 [transcript and erased audio].

This phone call, now reduced to 14 minutes of hiss, was followed up that same day by a five-page FBI Report sent to both the White House and the Secret Service. This report repeated the message in no uncertain terms:

The Central Intelligence Agency advised that on October 1, 1963, an extremely sensitive source had reported that an individual identified himself as Lee Oswald, who contacted the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City inquiring as to any messages. Special Agents of this Bureau, who have conversed with Oswald in Dallas, Texas, have observed photographs of the individual referred to above and have listened to a recording of his voice. These Special Agents are of the opinion that the above-referred-to individual was not Lee Harvey Oswald [See excerpt in HSCA staff report entitled "Oswald, the CIA, and Mexico City].  

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover
White House Photo
LBJ Library

Now I'm not going to go through the rest of the materials which corroborate this account, and show that the subsequent denials from both the CIA and FBI are without merit. Suffice to say that Jeremy Gunn of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) got it straight from the horse's mouth, from two Warren Commission staffers who listened to the tapes in April of 1964. Although it's disturbing and symptomatic of the delicacy of this matter that the ARRB didn't see fit to get this acknowledgement in sworn testimony. Instead, we get the account in a bit of a roundabout fashion, in the form of a question asked of CIA Mexico City ex-employee Anne Goodpasture:

Gunn. I have spoken with two Warren Commission staff members who went to Mexico City and who both told me that they heard the tape after the assassination obviously. Do you have any knowledge of information regarding tapes that may have been played to those Warren Commission staff members?

Goodpasture. No. It may have been a tape that Win Scott had squirreled away in his safe [ARRB testimony of Anne Goodpasture of 12-15-95, p.27].

Ultra-Sensitive Sources

The fact that the CIA was taping the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City was of course an ultra-secret secret, a perfect place to hang a plot into and be sure that there would never be a full public airing. The Warren Commission got a lot of vague runaround regarding how the CIA knew what it was telling them during the early months of 1964, until finally in April three staffers were sent by the Commission to Mexico City to try and get some harder information. But even the seventy-page internal report of this trip, written by David Slawson in April 1964 but not released until 1996, never directly says that the tapes had been listened to, instead referring to transcripts:

Mr. Scott's narrative of course took a rather long time to complete, and we interrupted him at many points with specific questions. During the course of the narrative we were shown the actual transcripts, plus the translations, of all the telephone intercepts involved, and we were also shown the reels of photographs for all the days in question that had been taken secretly outside the Cuban and Soviet Embassy entrances [David Slawson Warren Commission report entitled "Trip to Mexico City", 4-22-64, RIF #104-10011-10097].

Documents like this will be used by some to continue to assert that the tapes never really existed at the time of the assassination. I think what's really going on here is that Slawson and Coleman got "the treatment" from the CIA. The ultra-sensitivity of the tapes was impressed upon them in the most forceful terms. This conclusion is not just conjecture.

For instance, William Coleman, David Slawson's partner, told the HSCA just how sensitive he believed the telephone tapping operation to be. In a recorded interview of August 2, 1978, he discussed just how much this had been impressed upon him, and even said he thought it was a "great disservice to the United States" that some of these secret operations were becoming public in the 1970s. He also told the HSCA that if this information had not been public knowledge already, "I would be fudging like hell with you fellows." He apparently went on to do just that, when Ed Lopez asked him directly about the question of the Oswald tapes surviving the assassination:

Lopez. Did the agency ever…..explain why it did not have an actual tape recording of Oswald's voice?

Coleman (soft): "I haven't the faintest idea whether they did or did not. I mean, I don't know, I'm pretty sure this question was probably asked of them and they probably gave us…if they had-I don't know whether they had or they didn't have, I mean, I really don't know but I do know that there was…but I'm pretty sure that if we asked them "where is it?"….. (trails off) [Taped HSCA interview of William Coleman, 8-2-78].

Coleman went on to explain why even detailed internal Warren Commission memos might not contain the most sensitive information in them. He also explained that this material was so secret that not even members of the Warren Commission could be let in on it:

Coleman. By that time…..we were sophisticated with the CIA, and therefore we wrote memoranda…..we tried to use the jargon of the CIA, because we felt it was important not to even indicate to everybody on the Commission some of these sources, because…..Dave Slawson had a special clearance with the CIA and there were some people that didn't [Taped HSCA interview of William Coleman, 8-2-78].

In fact, as late as May 5, 1964, nearly a month after their Mexico City trip, these Warren Commission staffers had apparently kept every single Commissioner in the dark about sources and methods. Besides the three staffers (Slawson, Coleman, and Willens), apparently only Commission Counsel J. Lee Rankin had been told. A Memo For the Record written by CIA's Thomas Hall of a May 5, 1964 meeting with Slawson notes that:

According to Mr. Slawson, only Messrs. Rankin, Willens, Coleman (?) and he presently know of the telephone taps in Mexico City. Slawson, Willens and Coleman were briefed on the taps during their visit to Mexico City.


According to Mr. Slawson, no member of the Commission now knows of the telephone taps in Mexico City (he did not mention Mr. Dulles).

Mr. [ ******** ] carefully briefed Mr. Slawson (probably rebriefed him) on the importance of these telephone taps to U.S. security and the grave damage that would be done to U.S. - Mexican relations if knowledge of their existence became public.

Mr. Slawson quite clearly was a bit unhappy that certain information could not be used, since the taps were the only source. Oswald's very bad Russian was the example he used. I asked what opinion Mrs. Oswald had of her husband's Russian. She thought that he spoke it very well [MFR of Thomas Hall of meeting with David Slawson, 5-5-64, at RIF #104-10404-10115].

It's unclear whether any Commission members were ever told of the telephone taps.


40 Million Americans

Now, those who have seen the transcripts of the "Oswald" calls know they're pretty innocuous if a bit confused, and are plausibly interpreted to be about Oswald's visa request. The September 28 call has a disturbing comment that "I went to the Cuban Embassy to ask them for my address because they have it," which would be the cause of much concern at the CIA post-assassination, as it appeared to imply an Oswald relationship with the Cuban Embassy. The October 1 call had something even nastier in it, a reference by "Oswald" to a previous meeting with a man whose name the Soviet guard on the phone supplies: Kostikov [Transcripts of both conversations are in MEXI 7025, at RIF #104-10413-10159].


Photograph of Lee Oswald present on his visa application to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City.
HSCA Exhibit F-194

Who's Kostikov? Warren Commission Document 347, one of those withheld until the 1990s, is a CIA report on Oswald's Mexico City trip, written on January 31, 1964. It contains the following:

Kostikov is believed to work for Department Thirteen of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB. It is the Department responsible for executive action, including sabotage and assassination. These functions of the KGB are known within the Service itself as "Wet Affairs" (mokryye dela). The Thirteenth Department headquarters, according to very reliable information, conducts interviews or, as appropriate, file reviews on every foreign military defector to the USSR to study and to determine the possibility of utilizing the defector in his country of origin. [emphasis added] [Warren Commission Document 347, p. 10].

This information is apparently what prompted Lyndon Johnson to tell Senator Richard Russell:

…..we've got to be taking this out of the arena where they're testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that, and kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour [Phone call between Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell, 11-29-63, 8:55 PM]

Johnson, of course, had learned almost immediately that it wasn't really Oswald on the phone, and so this Department Thirteen connection was a phony one. But he presumably didn't tell that to Chief Justice Earl Warren when he arm-wrestled Warren onto his President's Commission, with "what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City" [from 11-29-63 LBJ-Russell call].

Next Part: II. The Third Tape