More Mexico Mysteries
III. Telephone Taps and Human Informants
The new documents reveal more about how the telephone tapping operation worked, and what other sources of information the CIA had at its disposal in Mexico City.
Mr. Hoover's Informant
A reasonable working assumption has been that the tapes were flown up on the night of the 22nd on the same Naval Attache plane that carried the "Mystery Man" photographs. I think that's still the most likely scenario, even though there's not a single released document that says so. But there's another possibility.
On November 26, just after the dust had settled and the CIA and FBI had agreed that there were no tapes after all, only transcripts, CIA Director McCone and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had a little phone conversation. Here is an excerpt, taken from a transcript preserved in CIA files (there are many indications that FBI Director Hoover and more than one CIA Director taped their own phone calls, though such tapes have not been released and may well be destroyed):
Hoover. But there is no question that he [Oswald] is the right man. There are a lot of aspects that we have dug up, for instance, with regards to the matter in Mexico City. We have now found that the photograph that was taken was not that of Oswald. We do find from our informant down there that Oswald did call at the Embassy that day and the informant has given us the conversation that he had .. [emphasis added] [Telephone conversation between Hoover and McCone, 11-26-63, at RIF #104-10408-10100]
Is Hoover being chummy here, referring to a CIA teltap operation as "our informant?" Or does he mean something else here?
The HSCA put this transcript in front of Ray Rocca, Chief of Research & Analysis in the CIA's Counter Intelligence division. Rocca was a key player in 1963 and had been hired back during the Rockefeller Commission's tenure to pull together materials on Mexico City. When shown this transcript, Rocca immediately recognized the "informant" as LIENVOY, the cryptonym for the tapping operation. Here is an excerpt from his deposition:
Mr. Goldsmith. I would like to show you a transcript of a telephone conversation between Mr. McCone and Mr. Hoover dated 26 November, 1963. It is CIA document number 2134. Does that appear to the [sic] a transcript of a telephone conversation?
Mr. Rocca. Yes, it does.
Mr. Goldsmith. Would you read the middle paragraph, which makes reference to an FBI informant.
Mr. Rocca. That's LIENVOY. That's their material [ ***********
Mr. Goldsmith. So, how would
Mr. Rocca. I would interpret it that way. I have never read this piece of paper that I recall. That would be my reaction.
Mr. Goldsmith. For the record, let's get this clear. The Director of the FBI, Mr. Hoover, is making reference to an informant that the FBI had in Mexico City, and he is indicating that the informant has informed the Bureau as to the contents of Oswald's conversations in Mexico City. From your answer, I take it that you assume that Mr. Hoover is referring to the LIENVOY operation.
Mr. Rocca. And he is subtly letting Mr. McCone know that Mr. McCone's resources down there were not unique, that they, too, had access to [ ****************** ].
Mr. Goldsmith. [***************************
Mr. Rocca. [ *************************************
Mr. Goldsmith. [ *************************
Mr. Rocca. Yes. [HSCA testimony of Ray Rocca, 7-17-78, pp. 277-278. There are 53 redactions in this transcript, which was last reviewed in 1997]
The day following the Hoover-McCone conversation, CIA HQ sent a cable down to the Mexico City station, alerting them to Hoover's revelation. DIR 85245 of November 27 suggests that Silvia Duran's statements be used instead of the LIENVOY take, to avoid compromising the operation, and then goes on to discuss the problem of where the FBI is getting its information. In the following cable standard CIA-speak applies, so "KUBARK" refers to the CIA and "ODENVY" is the FBI.
2. PLS NOTE THAT DIRECTOR ODENVY IS GETTING FROM ODENVY MEXI MUCH INFO WHICH OBVIOUSLY ORIGINATES WITH THE LIENVOY OPERATION. ODENVY HERE APPARENTLY DOES NOT REALIZE THAT THIS INFO WAS PRODUCED BY A KUBARK OPERATION, AND INDEED, ODENVY MAY BE GETTING THIS LIENVOY INFO THRU ITS OWN CLANDESTINE SOURCES [ **************** ] OR EVEN IN THE [ ************ ]. PLS TRY TO CLARIFY WITH ODENVY REP THERE THE EXACT MANNER IN WHICH HE HAS OBTAINED SUCH INFO AND THE FORM IN WHICH HE HAS SENT IT TO ODENVY HQ. WE MUST AVOID THE INADVERTENT COMPROMISE OF LIENVOY. [DIR 85245 of 11-27-63, at RIF #104-10404-10162]
It's apparent that, one way or another, FBI Director Hoover had his own access to the telephone tap material, and even CIA did not appear to have known how. Does this mean the FBI had its own tapping operation? Probably not. While it remains unclear whether the FBI had access to raw tapes, or transcripts, or simply information, the most plausible explanation is that Hoover had people "in on" the CIA teltap operation, LIENVOY.
Naming it a "CIA" operation may be what is confusing things here, because it's likely that LIENVOY was not fully a CIA operation at all. There remain many redactions in these transcripts and documents in this area, but what is being kept secret does not seem to be so much the methods as the sources, specifically just who it was that ran LIENVOY.
One redaction in Richard Helms' HSCA testimony holds the key, and its contents can be guessed fairly easily:
Mr. Helms. I do not know whether it has been made, the Committee has been made of the fact that the reason for the sensitivity of these telephone taps and the surveillance was not only because it was sensitive from the Agency's standpoint, but the telephone taps were running in conjunction with the [ **************** ] and therefore, if this had become public knowledge, it would have caused very bad feelings between Mexico and the United States, and that was the reason. [HSCA testimony of Richard Helms on 8-9-78, pp. 51-52]
Substitute "Mexican DFS" for the redacted text, and things fall into place nicely. The Mexican security service no doubt managed the physical placement of telephone taps within their own country, and probably supplied the people who manned the listening post as well. Hoover, with his extensive contacts in Latin America, no doubt had his own backchannel into what was ostensibly a CIA operation but which was not really fully their show.
It's interesting to speculate as to exactly when the FBI got access to the "Oswald" tapes or transcripts, whether right away on November 22, or a few days later before the November 26 phone call, or even prior to the assassination.
As an aside, the Rocca HSCA deposition has another very interesting moment, prior to the discussion of the Hoover-McCone call. Michael Goldsmith, the HSCA interviewer, was trying to find out why the CIA's Counter Intelligence staff, the CI/SIG group in particular, was the one that opened the 201 file on Oswald a year after he defected to the Soviet Union. Goldsmith was curious, because CI/SIG was concerned primarily with penetrations of the DD/P, the operations group inside the CIA.
Mr. Goldsmith. ..My question is more narrowly focused in why would CI/SIG in particular have been opening the file.
Mr. Rocca. Because of their concern, basically, with the problem of Americans and they were the recipient of the materials, probably from the Office of Security, if not the actual copy of that material, certainly the chit chat. Bruce Solie was - B-R-U-C-E S-O-L-I-E - constantly in touch with Mr. O'Neill and with Mrs. Edgerter, I am sure.
Mr. Goldsmith. But from the face of it, it does not appear that Oswald posed any sort of a counter intelligence threat in terms of the penetration of DDP personnel.
Mr. Rocca. Of the U.S. security interest. At a very high level, though, he did, involving other departments and agencies of the government.
Mr. Goldsmith. I understand, and I am not suggesting that a file should not have been opened by the CI staff. I am just trying to determine why CI/SIG in particular, which was concerned about DDP penetrations, would have been opening the file. .
Mr. Goldsmith. How would the function of CI/SIG in that case be different from in the Office of Security, in general?
Mr. Rocca. It would be with respect to where and what had happened to DDP materials with respect to a defection in any of these places.
Mr. Goldsmith. Again, though, Oswald had nothing to do with DDP at this time, at least apparently.
Mr. Rocca. I'm not saying that. You said it. [ emphasis added ] [Rocca HSCA testimony, pp. 217-218]
Human Informants: Two, to be Exact, One Male, One Female
Telephone taps and photo surveillance were only two of the tools employed in the spy-vs-spy game played in Mexico City. Many of these operations are touched upon in a three-volume history of the Mexico City CIA station, sanitized excerpts of which were shown to three HSCA investigators [Mexico City Station History Excerpts, at RIF #104-10414-10124. The three HSCA investigators who were allowed to look at even the sanitized excerpts were Chief Counsel G. Robert Blakey, Deputy Counsel Gary Cornwell, and Michael Goldsmith, who conducted most of the Mexico City-related depositions]. While still heavily redacted, this lengthy set of excerpts describes a variety of operations conducted against the Cuban Embassy (and other embassies). Microphones were planted in various offices. Wastebasket trash was recovered and analyzed. Passenger manifests from flights to and from Cuba were passed along. A photo-surveillance van followed "targets" around the city. While the first microphone transmitter was installed in the Cuban Embassy in February 1961, so many redactions are present that it is impossible to be certain that the planted microphones were in operation during the time of the Oswald visit in the fall of 1963. [RIF #104-10414-10124. Operations against the Cuban Embassy are covered in pages 226-298]
But another operation ensured that more listening ears than microphones would be present in the Cuban Embassy. Have a look at this cable, sent from the Mexico City CIA station to headquarters on November 28, 1963.
[ ********** ] REPORTED 27 NOV AFTER SYLVIA DURAN FIRST ARREST
WAS PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE THAT THERE GREAT DEAL DISCUSSION OF THIS IN EMBASSY.
SHE BACK IN OFFICE 25 NOV AND SEEMED QUITE PLEASED WITH HER PERFORMANCE.
HER ACCOUNT INTERROGATION CONTAINED LITTLE NEW EXCEPT POLICE HAD THREATENED
HER WITH EXTRADITION TO U.S. TO FACE OSWALD. SHE HAD NO FEAR OF CONFRONTATION.
[ ******** ] DESCRIBES HER AS VERY INTELLIGENT AND QUICK-WITTED.
The report above clearly comes from human informants inside the Cuban Embassy. This cable and others [see also MEXI 7615 of 1-2-64, at RIF #104-10404-10130] show that there were two informants, one male and one female, who worked there. Their identities are not revealed, at least in these cables of the days following the assassination, where their identities are redacted.
What did these human informants know of the events of September/October 1963? The last line of the above cable says that they had no personal knowledge of Oswald's presence, and this claim was reiterated in a cable sent the following day from CIA HQ to the White House, FBI, and State Department:
NONE OF THESE SOURCES HAD ANY PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE OF ANY VISITS THAT LEE OSWALD MAY HAVE MADE TO THE CUBAN EMBASSY IN MEXICO CITY OR OF ANY BUSINESS HE MAY HAVE TRANSACTED. [DIR 85670 of 11-29-63, at RIF #104-10404-10144]
The key phrase here may be "personal" knowledge, as opposed to what these informants learned from other employees. HSCA investigators Ed Lopez and Harold Leap found and interviewed these two informants, without permission from the CIA. According to another HSCA investigator, Gaeton Fonzi, the informants told Lopez and Leap that "the consensus among the employees within the Cuban Consulate after the Kennedy assassination was that it wasn't Oswald who had been there." [Gaeton Fonzi, The Last Investigation, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1993, p. 294] The informants also said that they had reported this fact to the Agency.
Luisa Calderon's Foreknowledge
The "Oswald" tapes weren't the only tapped conversations of concern to the CIA and the assassination investigators. A November 26 call between Cuban Ambassador to Mexico Hernandez Armas and Cuban President Dorticos was a cause of some concern. Hernandez told Dorticos that the DFS had asked Silvia Duran about intimate relations with Oswald, and Dorticos for his part repeatedly asked whether she had been asked about monetary payments to Oswald.
The conversation, sinister as it could appear to some, had its comic aspects as well. The phone connection was terrible, and most of the conversation is spent with the two parties trying desperately to make themselves understood. The vigorous promotion of the idea that a conspiracy to kill the U.S. President had been conducted by parties who could hardly make a phone call to each other has its amusing side. Perhaps the connection was so bad because of too many taps on the line. An excerpted transcript was sent from Mexico City to CIA HQ on November 26, 1963 [MEXI 7068, at RIF #104-10404-10175]. A complete version, which includes the comical inability of the parties to communicate, was sent to the Warren Commission on May 22, 1964. [Memo from Helms to Rankin of 5-22-64, at RIF #104-10408-10072]
But another taped call, one which caused the HSCA much consternation, involved Cuban Embassy employee Luisa Calderon. Volume XI of the HSCA's Report, careful to avoid disclosing sources and methods, laid out the issue:
A reliable source reported that on 22 November 1963, several hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Luisa Calderon Carralero, a Cuban employee of the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City, and believed to be a member of the Cuban Directorate General of Intelligence (DGI), discussed news of the assassination with an acquaintance. Initially, when asked if she had heard the latest news, Calderon replied, in what appeared to be a joking manner, "Yes, of course, I knew almost before Kennedy." [HSCA Report, Appendix XI, p. 494]
The "reliable source" is again a telephone tap, which captured a conversation at 5:30 PM local time, several hours after the assassination. A loose "transcript" of the conversation starts this way:
HF asks LUISA if she has heard the latest news and LUISA, in a joking tone says, "Yes, of course, I knew almost before Kennedy." HF smiles and comments that it is very bad; .
There are a few oddities here. How one ascertains that a person is "smiling" in a telephone conversation is one. Also, this conversation was accompanied by a handwritten note which includes: "22 Nov Lienvoy Luisa Calderon and man outside." "Man outside" is typical CIA-speak for a man on an outside telephone line (and LIENVOY is the teltap operation). But the "transcript" notes that the other person is HF, presumably Hispanic Female. The handwritten note also says that "cc original and transcript sent to Galbond via Kingman. Nothing to Buro yet," interestingly keeping the FBI in the dark for the moment. [Handwritten note and transcript at RIF #104-10400-10162]
In any case, the HSCA became greatly concerned about the possibility that Luisa Calderon had exhibited foreknowledge of the assassination with her joking statement "Yes, of course, I knew almost before Kennedy." If a "conspiracy buff" took some similar statement on the part of an American official and ballooned it into a conspiracy mountain, they would of course be subjected to deserved ridicule. But the double-standard applied to Cubans, particularly one thought to be in the employ of the Cuban intelligence service, made this case different. In his interview with William Coleman, Ed Lopez devoted 15 minutes to the topic of Luisa Calderon, even though Coleman couldn't even remember who such a person was. The HSCA wrote several pages in Volume XI about their concerns, and the page devoted to her in the Final Report was more space than they devoted to many more important matters.
An obvious question here is whether Luisa Calderon made any statements between the time of the assassination and this 5:30 PM call, statements which might clarify whether she really had any foreknowledge or was merely joking. For instance, is there a document with transcripts of all tapped calls for November 22, and does Luisa appear in other, earlier calls?
There is no evidence that I've found to indicate that the HSCA asked this question, or received such a transcript log. But one does exist. RIF #104-10404-10426 contains 49 pages of Spanish transcripts and English translations for November 22, 1963. And indeed there is not just one but two prior calls involving Luisa Calderon, one at 1:30 PM and one at 2:00 PM.
Here is the beginning of the English translation of the first call:
1330 hours. Unidentified woman calls LUISA (in Cuban Embassy). Caller asks LUISA if she knows the news about KENNEDY'S death.
LUISA: is surprised .says it is a lie and asks who?
CALLER: in an attempt in Texas.
LUISA: further surprise and again asks if news is official and when did it occur.
CALLER: yes, it happened at 1300 hours.
LUISA: laughs and says how great. . [ 104-10404-10426, p. 22]
The second call came a half-hour later. If Luisa Calderon exhibits foreknowledge in this call, it is related to Oswald's death and not Kennedy's:
about 1400 hours. YOYA calls to Cuban Embassy and asks LUISA if she heard the news and she says yes.
YOYA: what do you think of it?
LUISA: Well I don't know. I still don't know what opinion to have about it.
YOYA: What bruts. A good shot. Direct. Listen. Now they are going to say that it was from here. That it was some Cuban.
LUISA: That is possible. Then if they don't say it; they will die. [104-10404-10426, p. 23]
It is very hard to believe that the HSCA would have written what it did about Luisa Calderon if HSCA staffers had seen these transcripts, which seem to exonerate Calderon of what was always a pretty weak charge. Was this just a case of bureaucratic snafu, with these earlier transcripts getting lost in the shuffle and overlooked? That too is hard to believe. The CIA Office of Legislative Counsel took the trouble to write Robert Blakey a ten-page letter in 1979, much of it taken up with bickering over the HSCA's writeup on the Calderon affair [Letter of 2-15-79, from OLC to Robert Blakey, at RIF #104-10400-10157]. Now that the damage was done, and the HSCA led on a wild goose chase into Cuban-conspiracy-land, the CIA was concerned that the HSCA would blow its sources and methods in their writeup. So the letter goes into great detail bickering over the exact wording of the Spanish words which were translated into "I knew almost before Kennedy," never pausing to mention "Oh, by the way, here are some earlier transcripts that will put the whole business to rest." It's of course possible to argue that people at the Office of Legislative Counsel were unaware of the earlier calls, but the idea that the CIA would not know how to look for "the day's take" of transcripts for November 22 is ludicrous. This episode is very damning of the Agency, adding fuel to the thesis that the Agency was more than happy in the 1970s to do what it had done with Warren Commission 15 years earlier, which is to push Communist conspiracy theories vigorously and divert the investigations from more fruitful avenues of research.
A final point about the Calderon affair has to do with the importance of original research using the documents, and being careful of writers with an agenda. I am referring to Gus Russo's Live by the Sword, a book which generally asserts that Oswald killed Kennedy by himself but a lot of secret sources and interviews conducted by Russo in the 1990s suggest that Oswald may have been dealing with Cuban agents and possibly egged on by them, and then bad Bobby Kennedy had to order a coverup because he and Jack had been going after Castro due to an ego-driven personal vendetta.
Russo discusses Luisa Calderon, and even includes some new information from the new documents. Russo repeats the famous "I knew almost before Kennedy" quote, but then adds this:
CIA transcripts of the conversation support the source. But they reveal even more detail. The conversation is punctuated by so much laughter, and such joyous disbelief, that the two parties appear giddy. Calderon, through her laughter, said that she couldn't believe the news of Kennedy's death, and continually remarked on how great it was. When the caller said that Kennedy was "shot three times in the face," Calderon exclaimed "Perfect!" [Gus Russo, Live by the Sword, Bancroft Press, 1998, p. 226]
Russo exaggerates the amount of "laughter" and "joyous disbelief" in the conversation, unless he has been somehow privy to an actual recording and not the transcript in the record that the rest of us can read. But far more interesting is how he conflates multiple conversations into one. Calderon did indeed reply "Perfect" when told Kennedy was shot three times in the face. But she did this during the recently-released 1:30 PM call, the one in which Calderon repeatedly expresses surprise at the news of the assassination, not the 5:30 PM "foreknowledge" call. Russo has conveniently left out the exonerating aspects of this earlier call, and used only the portion that makes Calderon look bad. Readers beware.
Next Part: IV. The Enigma of Pedro Gutierrez Valencia