WHAT JANE ROMAN SAID
A Retired CIA Officer Speaks Candidly About Lee Harvey Oswald
By Jefferson Morley
This is the previously-unknown story of three senior CIA officersJane Roman, George Joannides and John Whittenwho knew about the activities of accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. It is based on interviews and recently declassified CIA records in the National Archives.
Their story, as told by Washington journalist Jefferson Morley, reveals the CIA's pre-assassination knowledge of Kennedy's accused killer to be wider and deeper than generally known. It also documents the CIA's role in the publication of the first JFK conspiracy theory.
Jefferson Morley is senior news analyst for washingtonpost.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the summer of 1994 I became curious if a retired employee of the Central Intelligence Agency named Jane Roman was still alive and living in Washington.
I was curious because I had just seen Jane Roman’s name and handwriting on routing slips attached to newly declassified CIA documents about Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy. This is what I found significant: these documents were dated before November 22, 1963. If this Jane Roman person at CIA headquarters had read the documents that she signed for on the routing slips, then she knew something of Oswald’s existence and activities before the itinerant, 24 year-old ex-Marine became world famous for allegedly shooting President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. In other words, Jane Roman was a CIA official in good standing who knew about the alleged assassin in advance of Kennedy’s violent death.
What self-respecting Washington journalist wouldn’t be interested?
Of course, I knew enough about the Kennedy assassination to know that many, many, many people knew something of Lee Oswald before he arrived in Dealey Plaza with a gun—a small family, an assortment of far-flung buddies from the Marines, family and acquaintances in New Orleans and Dallas, some attentive FBI agents, not to mention the occasional anti-Castro Cuban, and even some CIA officials.
But Jane Roman was not just any CIA official. In 1963 she was the senior liaison officer on the Counterintelligence Staff of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. That set her apart. At the height of the Cold War, the counterintelligence staff was a very select operation within the agency, charged with detecting threats to the integrity of CIA operations and personnel from the Soviet Union and its allies. The CI staff, as it was known in bureaucratic lingo, was headed by James Jesus Angleton, a legendary Yale-educated spy, who was either a patriotic genius or a paranoid drunk or perhaps both. Jane Roman’s responsibilities in the fall of 1963 included handling communications between the CI staff and other federal agencies.
The Ben Bradlee Challenge
I was excited, perhaps foolishly, in June of 1994, when I learned that the CIA’s Jane Roman was living not far from me, on Newark Street in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington DC.
I say foolishly because at that point in time pursuing an interest in the Kennedy assassination was among the less sensible career moves one could make in Washington journalism. As a news story, the murder of the American president many years ago was a vast and complex subject that defied summarization in a standard length news story. Public understanding of the event was so polarized that world-weary senior editors toiling in the vineyard of the news cycle were not inclined to believe that there was anything new or conclusive or fresh to report. But in the summer and fall of 1994, the JFK Assassination Records Act was yielding a huge number of assassination-related records that had never been seen before.
As I went through these records at the National Archives II building in College Park, Maryland, I wasn’t looking for a mythical “smoking gun document that would show who killed Kennedy. I wasn’t looking to vindicate or refute any JFK conspiracy theories. I was looking for people how might have information about the assassination story that they had never shared. I thought that Jane Roman might be such a person.
In his memoirs, retired Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee wondered if there were any young reporters left who would sacrifice their left testicle for the sake of getting a great story. Bradlee had become a hero to me when I saw “All the President’s Men” in a Minneapolis movie theater in 1975 at age 17. I knew right then and there I would work at a newspaper and soon I did. A quarter century later, working as an assignment editor for the Post’s Sunday Outlook section, I was always cheered to see Bradlee, recently retired, striding about the Post newsroom, sometimes accompanied by his very pretty and charming wife, Sally Quinn. He was a cheerful lion of a man with more charisma in his cuff links than most of the editors now running the place. His example made me want to sacrifice something for the sake of a good story.
But against my interest in Jane Roman and the Kennedy assassination ran the strong warm current of Washington complacency: all serious wrongdoing in the nation’s capital is eventually exposed. When asked about the possibility of a Kennedy assassination conspiracy, former CIA director Dick Helms, said “Something like that would have leaked out by now.”
Considering the source, I was hardly reassured. Helms, who died in October 2002, was known as “the man who kept the secrets.” He was one of the most controversial and inscrutable power brokers of mid-20th century Washington. A steely, handsome and efficient Navy man, he rose through the ranks of the CIA after World War II. On the strength of a reputation for not making mistakes, he became deputy CIA director in 1962. Skilled in the arts of flattery and covert violence he made himself indispensable to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He had a budget in the billions and he was discrete. When Congress pressed him to disclose his successful plot to kill a Chilean general in October 1970, he lied on the stand to protect Nixon.
In one of the more obscure subplots of the Watergate scandal, Nixon fired Helms in January 1973. The revelation two years later of the foreign assassination conspiracies that Helms had masterminded prompted public outrage and a purge at the agency that swept his loyalists from senior positions. Convicted of misleading Congress in 1977, Helms spent his retirement seeking to rebut the agency’s critics, rehabilitate his reputation, and avoid serious questions about the Kennedy assassination. Helms did his best to make sure none of the details of his own staff’s handling (or mishandling) of information about Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 “leaked out,” not to the press, not to the Congress, not even, as we shall see, to a trusted colleague.
In any case, I was less interested in Jane Roman’s opinion about the conspiracy question than what she actually knew. That she knew about Oswald before Kennedy was killed was apparent from the records that the CIA released to the National Archives in the spring of 1994. Roman’s initials appeared on a routing slip attached to an FBI report about Lee Harvey Oswald dated September 10, 1963. That was ten weeks before that same Oswald allegedly shot Kennedy. By that date, anti-conspiracy writers such as Gus Russo and Gerald Posner say that Oswald was clearly on a path that would put him in the right place--and in the right state of mind--to kill the president. He had certainly tried to infiltrate one of the CIA’s favorite anti-Castro organizations. He had made himself a public spokesman for the leading pro-Castro group in the United States.
Even if you assumed Oswald was the lone assassin, the perspective of a CIA paper pusher such as Jane Roman on that moment in time was still interesting, and potentially newsworthy.
What did she make of this character Oswald? What did the CIA make of him as he made his way to Dealey Plaza? Did he raise any alarms?
When I saw those initials on that routing slip 31 years later, I decided that talking to Jane Roman was a risk worth taking. I decided, manfully, I was ready to give “my left one” to get the story.
What a mistake.
Next: The Interview