More Mexico Mysteries
II. The Third Tape
Now again, the phone calls themselves are not really very sinister, though some dire implications could and were drawn from them in some quarters. But the assumption here is that the record is complete and unaltered. However, we have many reasons to suspect that this is not the case. In particular there are indications, as John Newman wrote about in Oswald and the CIA, that there was another phone call which is not in the current record [see Oswald and the CIA, John Newman, 1995, Carroll & Graf, pp. 369-377]. Newman made use of the Lopez Report's discussion of the testimony of David Phillips and that of Anna Tarasoff, half of the husband-wife CIA transcription team. But as we'll see, even the Lopez Report is incomplete in regard to the relevant testimony here.
David Phillips 1976 Allegation
First, David Phillips' allegation. On November 26, 1976, the day before he was to testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, CIA Chief of Cuban Operations David Phillips dropped a bombshell into the media. The AP reported, in a story headlined "Oswald Offered Soviets Data for Trip," that Phillips remembered another phone call, one not in the record [AP story of 11-27-76, at RIF #104-10400-10010, p.5]. In that call, Phillips recalled, Oswald offered the Soviets information that "might be useful to them." Ronald Kessler of the Washington Post wrote a lengthier story the same day (of which the Russ Holmes Work File contains many copies, an indication of the interest elicited at CIA) entitled "Hill Panel Probing Oswald Call" [Washington Post story of 11-27-76, by Ronald Kessler, at RIF #104-10400-10010, p.9]. Kessler reported that Oswald was trying to wrangle a free trip to the Soviet Union in exchange for information.
Now, as recorded in these articles Phillips' story was still not of a "Hey, I'm going to kill the President like you told me" phone call. Nonetheless, it's more sinister than the calls we have transcripts for, and might very well include statements that would imply a working relationship between Oswald and the Soviets. And if this story is true, it indicates that the record on Mexico City has been fudged a bit, which is disturbing also.
The HSCA testimony of David Phillips is now public, held among the so-called Security Classified testimony in 9 boxes at the National Archives. Phillips was questioned by Richard Sprague, the HSCA's head at that point and for a few months more, until strange circumstances led to his ouster and replacement by Robert Blakey. In his deposition, David Phillips started out answering directly and then slowly started to dance sideways under questioning, trying to maintain his allegation without being pinned down too hard on specifics [The following is taken from the HSCA testimony of David Phillips, 11-2876, pp. 39-40]:
Mr. Sprague. The United Press has a specific quotation of a statement which they say you made to a United Press International reporter named Daniel F. Gillmore, quoting in part as follows: "I have the recollection hazy after fourteen years that Oswald intimated that he had information that might be useful to the Soviets and Cuba, and that he hoped to be provided with free transportation to Russia via Cuba." Did you make that statement to Mr. Daniel F. Gillmore of United Press International?
Mr. Phillips. I did, sir.
Mr. Sprague. Is that statement accurate?
Mr. Phillips. I think it is, sir, yes, it is.
Mr. Sprague. There is, in the Washington Post of yesterday's date, a story by Ronald Kessler in which he quotes you in part stating that you recall from a transcript Oswald telling the Soviet embassy, "I have information you would be interested in, and I know you can pay my way" into Russia, but that is not part of the quote. Is that what you said in part to Mr. Kessler?
Mr. Phillips. I feel I cannot answer that yes or no without explaining that I met with Mr. Kessler on two occasions, once for a long lunch, once in a coffee shop, and he called me two or three times on the phone. In these discussions with Mr. Kessler, I did-he raised the subject of whether or not Oswald was offering information, was being paid, wanted to be paid to go to the Soviet Union, and wanted to know whether or not I could confirm that. I did confirm in the sense-
Mr. Sprague. My question is, I have read a specific quotation, Mr. Phillips. You are under oath at this time.
Mr. Phillips. I understand.
Mr. Sprague. And I will reread the quotation, because I do want to know, did you make this statement in part. I understand that there were other parts to the conversation, but did you make this statement to Mr. Kessler-I'm not talking about you, I am talking about what Oswald allegedly said: "I have information you would be interested in, and I know you can pay my way."
Mr. Phillips. I think I may have said that or something near to it, but what I intended to convey was that Mr. Kessler was saying, well, is that the idea, and I said yes, that was the idea that we gathered.
By 11 pages later in the interview transcript, though, Phillips had backed pretty far off the original story, and was talking about a conversation which was mainly about a visa:
Mr. Sprague. I do not want you to give an answer based upon what anyone else says. I do not want you to give an answer trying to square your answer with what you believe is on somebody else's transcript or anything else. I want this to be your own answer as best you can recall, of what was the purport of that first intercept.
Mr. Phillips. Okay. All right. Obviously after so long I can't remember it word for word, but I remember that the thrust of the conversation was Oswald saying to the Soviet he talked to in the Soviet Embassy, "What have you heard about my visa, what news do you have?" "What have you heard about my visa, what news do you have," something like that. I also recall that Oswald was saying "What's wrong, why don't you do this?" And I recall something in that conversation that I can only call an intimation that he said "Well, you really should talk to me," or something like that. Now, it seems that I recall that, and that is all that I recall with absolute clarity.
The Tarasoffs and the Lopez Report
Now, if this story were solely told by David Phillips, researchers might very well write it off as some form of disinformation. But, as the Lopez Report relates, the story received corroboration. Anna Tarasoff, wife of Boris Tarasoff and part of the team which transcribed the Oswald calls, remembered such a conversation. The Lopez Report relates that on April 12, 1978, Anna Tarasoff was shown the extant transcripts of conversations, but that:
In addition to these transcripts, Ms. Tarasoff testified that she remembered one more conversation that involved Lee Oswald [Oswald, the CIA, and Mexico City (aka Lopez Report), p. 82].
In her own words:
According to my recollection, I myself, have made a transcript, an English transcript, of Lee Oswald talking to the Russian Consulate or whoever he was at that time, asking for financial aid.
Now, that particular transcript does not appear here and whatever happened to it, I do not know, but it was a lengthy transcript and I personally did that transcript. It was a lengthy conversation between him and someone at the Russian Embassy [Lopez Report, p. 83].
Ms. Tarasoff remembered specifically another call with content similar to that described by Phillips. Furthermore, she remembered that the conversation was lengthy, unlike the short transcripts which exist now, and in English, not broken Russian or Spanish.
But the Lopez Report also notes:
Mr. Tarasoff did not confirm his wife's recollection of another conversation including Oswald. He said that he did not remember any other calls involving Lee Oswald or any details of Oswald's conversations that were not reflected in the transcripts [Lopez Report, p. 86].
And that's an accurate account of the Tarasoff's April 1978 testimony, which is now public, part of nine boxes of Security Classified testimony.
The Tarasoffs' Earlier Testimony
But completely ignored in the Lopez Report is earlier testimony of both Mr. and Mrs. Tarasoff, testimony given nearly a year-and-a-half earlier. In fact, Richard Sprague's team had barely finished interviewing David Phillips when they flew down to Guadalajaro Mexico to interview the Tarasoff couple, on November 30, 1976. And in this interview, Boris Tarasoff didn't have the memory lapse he was to exhibit later, during the Blakey era.
The summary of this earlier interview, included along with the transcript in the file, contains the following:
The Tarasoffs claim to remember translating and transcribing at least two conversations involving Oswald. They remember that the first one was fairly short and routine. Oswald did not identify himself in this first conversation. The second one was much longer and Oswald did identify himself in this conversation. The Tarasoffs remember Oswald discussing his financial situation in this call. They deny making any editorial or marginal comments in the transcription of this call.
The Tarasoffs remember nothing unusual about the first call or the circumstances surrounding its delivery or transcription. The second call was delivered to them and they were asked to transcribe the Oswald call as quickly as possible. Their contact expressed a strong interest in the identity of the caller and the substance of the call. The Tarasoffs translated and transcribed the call and returned the transcript on the same day, using an emergency contact as opposed to waiting until the next morning and using their standard contact [HSCA Tarasoff testimony, 11-30-76, summary material].
In this interview, both Tarasoffs clearly remembered an English conversation, which Anna transcribed as she typically handled English calls whereas her husband typically did the Russian ones. This may be responsible for her memory being better regarding the content of the call. But that there was such a call, in English, lengthy, and with a great deal of excitement surrounding it, both Tarasoffs were explicit, as this excerpt reveals:
Mr. Brooten. There was a second long conversation. Between the first conversation and the second conversation, were you asked to attempt to determine the identity of this person?
Mr. Tarasoff. Oh yes.
Mr. Brooten. All right, would you describe that.
Mr. Tarasoff. Well, to the best of my knowledge, we either got the note or was it passed verbally, I think we got a note, no?
Mrs. Tarasoff. Well, if I'm not mistaken, the party that brought the reels, there was a notation made to listen to number so-and-so on tape so-and-so dated whatever date it was, because each reel had a date and a number and according to the numbers, then there were, the transcripts of each conversation within that had a number, so you ran the tape until you came to a certain number and then you listened.
Mr. Brooten. Now, did they want you to or did they give you any instructions about attempting to determine who the caller was in that case?
Mr. Tarasoff. Yes, they certainly did. They wanted to know the name of the person. Then if we learned the name to get in touch with them immediately and turn in the transcript, to make the transcript, turn it in forget about Spanish, Russian or whatever was on the reel-
Mrs. Tarasoff. In other words, this was top priority if we got the name, to work on it.
Mr. Tarasoff. It was very important to them.
Mr. Brooten. All right sir. Now did you receive a second tape with this same individual speaking to anyone at the Soviet Embassy?
Mr. Tarasoff. Well that's, you mean the third conversation?
Mr. Brooten. All right, no but there was a second one.
Mr. Tarasoff. The long one, yes. [HSCA Tarasoff testimony, 11-30-76, p. 22-23]
In this lengthy interview, the following points were made quite clearly:
An Incomplete Record
There are many other clues that something is missing from the CIA's story about what happened in Mexico City in late September and early October of 1963, and that the record we have today has been effaced. Another of the Security Classified depositions is that of Ray Rocca, who was Chief of the Research & Analysis division of Counter Intelligence at CIA. Rocca was shown the October cable traffic which reported on the Oswald calls. He exhibited a fair amount of confusion, referring repeatedly to cables which had been sent earlier than the "first" cable of October 8. Rocca finally threw up his hands and said of the "first" cable: "Well, it seems to me too late, that communication began earlier from Mexico City." [HSCA testimony of Ray Rocca, 7-17-78, p. 84]
Win Scott, the CIA Mexico City station chief, was another whose account does not square with "the record" as it exists in CIA documents. In a manuscript entitled Foul Foe, Scott complained about the Warren Commission's account of the Oswald visits. Writing about the lack of a photograph of Oswald, for instance, he wrote: "persons watching these embassies photographed Oswald as he entered and left each one, and clocked the time he spent on each visit" [see the relevant chapter of Scott's manuscript along with detailed CIA analysis/rebuttal at RIF #104-10419-10314]. The HSCA uncovered this manuscript, whose contents were disputed by the CIA, but HSCA investigators were less sure that Scott was in error. Writing to DCI Stansfield Turner on October 13, 1978, HSCA Chairman Louis Stokes wrote a letter which began "I am writing you with regard to a matter of grave concern to the House Select Committee on Assassinations," and went on to describe problems with the CIA's story regarding photo surveillance. Regarding the Scott manuscript, Stokes wrote "Scott's comments are a source of deep concern to this Committee, for they suggest your Agency's possible withholding of photographic materials highly relevant to this investigation." [Letter from HSCA Chairman Louis Stokes to DCI Stansfield Turner, 10-13-78, at RIF #104-10406-10425]
The Tarasoffs' 1976 testimony is clear and believable, despite the memory lapse exhibited by Boris Tarasoff more than a year later. This "missing call" might have occurred on Monday, September 30, a day suspiciously lacking in activity in the official record (though it should be noted that the earliest post-assassination records, including the November 23 FBI memo to the White House and Secret Service, refer to an October 1 call). No one's memory of such a call includes any ultra-sinister discussion such as a plot to kill Kennedy. But what is remembered of the call gives it a more sinister import than those now in the record. Besides Oswald's offer of information and assertions that "I know you can pay my way," the lengthy call might have contained indications that the Russians knew Oswald and had dealt with him before. This would probably only be the case if the call was a complete fabrication, with neither Oswald nor the real Soviet Embassy officials on the other end, but there are many indications that the September 28 "Saturday" call is such a fabrication (among other things, both supposed parties to the call deny that such a call could have taken place on that day, when the embassies were closed). [See Deep Politics II, Peter Dale Scott, p. 15]
Perhaps it is this "third call" which prompted Lyndon Johnson to bandy about the figure of "40 million Americans involved" in a nuclear exchange, and prompted a cover-up of more than just visa talk.
Next Part: III. Telephone Taps and Human Informants