A Retired CIA Officer Speaks Candidly About Lee Harvey Oswald
By Jefferson Morley

Why the Washington Post wouldn't pick up the Jane Roman Story.

1. Introduction
2. The Interview
3. ‘A keen interest in Oswald’
4. The Dead End
5. The ‘Scelso Deposition’: What John Witten Said
6. Dick Helms’ Man in Miami

Click here to read the transcript of the interview with CIA Counterintelligence officer Jane Roman.

The Dead End

Things fell apart very slowly.

Jane Roman called me three days later. She was hostile.

“I feel the interview was set up under somewhat false pretenses. You didn’t tell me about your friend.”

I reminded her that I most certainly had told her about Newman on the phone beforehand and that she had agreed to talk with the tape recorder going. She replied that she had agreed because the Washington Post was involved, and that she was sorry the interview had ever taken place.

I asked her if she was changing her mind about what she said about the Oswald FBI reports.

“They were never read by the person who drafted the reply,” she said.

I reminded her that she had signed for the FBI reports and she had participated in the drafting of the reply. She said that the FBI reports weren’t in the CIA’s official registry and therefore weren’t read by the drafters of the cable.  I said the location of the reports didn’t change the fact that those reports were available to her and others who drafted the cable.

She changed her argument.

“It’s also possible that it”--meaning the information about Oswald--“was withheld for protection of sources and methods,” she said.

No doubt, I said. The men in SAS who withheld information about Oswald from their colleagues before the assassination would have certainly cited “protection of sources and methods” as the justification for their actions. The question was who doing the withholding, I said.

Roman said pursuing such questions was a “disservice” to the country.

To my mind, Roman’s defensive remarks only lent credence to what she had said with the documents in front of her. I wrote up the story.

I had two things to report: that Jane Roman had said that that she and several colleagues at the CIA had signed off on a communication about Lee Harvey Oswald several weeks before the assassination whose contents she knew to be inaccurate. I also reported that she said that newly declassified CIA records suggested that members of the CIA’s anti-Castro operation, the Special Affairs Staff, seemed to be carefully guarding information about Oswald in the weeks before Kennedy was killed.

These were provocative formulations for the newsroom of the Washington Post. Nobody could deny that Jane Roman had been in an interesting spot in 1963 or that she had talked to me or that she had said the things she said. But my scoop—the first on-the-record interview with a CIA counterintelligence official who knew about accused assassin Lee Oswald before the Kennedy assassination--did not impress my superiors.

One senior editor whom I respected a great deal told me he knew Roman but he was not curious about her perspective on events leading up to the Kennedy assassination. In certain respects, I could understand why.

I was putting forward Roman’s comments as news less than three years after the huge controversy raised by the popularity of Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” Unfortunately, the Post had become identified with debunking and discrediting Stone.  The Post’s George Lardner, one of the few newspaper reporters on record as believing that there had been conspiracy, became a polemical target for Stone. When Stone recklessly described Lardner as a CIA agent the possibilities of genuine debate narrowed. Stone apologized but it was too late. The notion that Jane Roman was newsworthy could be seen as implicit statement that maybe the Kennedy assassination was still an open question. That could be taken as a concession to Stone---not something editors loyal to Lardner were in any mood to do. The polemics around Stone’s movie made it harder to talk about facts. I had the sense that Lardner, a great reporter, winner of a Pulitzer and a thoroughly decent man, regretted this turn of events.

Others felt the whole subject was a waste of time, and who could blame them with a newspaper to put out tomorrow?

But not everyone was so jaded. The younger generation of working reporters around the Post newsroom, people who came of age in the 1970s, was much more relaxed and open-minded about poking at the Kennedy assassination. One ace Metro reporter recalled her own investigations of the Dealey Plaza tragedy for a high school debate team and urged me on. At least two senior editors, a well-traveled foreign correspondent and an accomplished staff writer, gave me advice about how to distill the complex essence of what Roman said into a news story.

My story went through an extensive editing process. The newsroom of a big newspaper like the Post is, perhaps by necessity, democratic. Decision-making is often collegial and the handling of my story was a group process.  My colleagues seemed to respect my reporting, recognized that Roman was an interesting person and had said I reported. But since they couldn’t agree on the significance of what she said, the paper’s editors would not publish my story in the news section. It was an opinion piece, they said. It was decided the story would be published in the Sunday Outlook section where I worked an editor.

I didn’t like this implicit downgrading of the story. My story was newsworthy. It seemed to me a political decision driven more by antipathy to Stone than by the objective evidence of what Jane Roman had said. I kept my prejudices to myself and acquiesced for the sake of getting Roman’s comments in the paper and on the record.

There were many drafts. News editors edited my opinion story, which was unusual. I didn’t care. I wanted the story to be transparent. I was open to all suggestions. On Sunday, April 24, 1995, the story finally appeared under the headline “The Oswald File: Tales of the Routing Slips.”

Through all the editing battles I had managed to keep the point of the story front and center. The gist of the story was in the third paragraph:

“The routing slips on newly released files show that some senior CIA officials who knew about the FBI reports [on accused assassin Oswald] failed to share the information with agency colleagues in Mexico City who were trying to learn more about Oswald six weeks before the assassination.”

I was happy but not for long. In the days that followed, more than one Post editor took me aside to say, with genuine concern, that my interest in the Kennedy assassination wasn’t going to “look good on my resume” and “wasn’t the way to build my career.” 

Jane Roman made it known she was very unhappy. She believed that I had made a “monstrous mountain out of a molehill.” I offered her a chance to respond in print in the Outlook section. She attempted to write something but put it aside and never sent it to us. My superiors evinced no interest in pursuing the implications of what Jane Roman said.  

I was beginning to get realistic. Lardner’s fine reporting notwithstanding, my employer, for better or worse, had become institutionally tilted to the anti-conspiratorial perspective in a way that gave CIA personnel the benefit of the doubt on the events of 1963. This wasn’t surprising given the commonality of interests between Post people and agency people. I had seen Jane Roman’s good friend and former boss Dick Helms, still hale in his late 70’s, at more than one Post social event.  Whatever remarks I had elicited from Jane Roman were not going to drag the Washington Post back into the JFK conspiracy tar pit. It was naïve to think they might.

Since Jane Roman wasn’t talking to me and my bosses weren’t curious about what she said, there clearly wasn’t going to be a follow-up story seeking to clarify the pre-assassination Oswald paper trail.  Without the ability to advance the story, my scoop in Outlook appeared to be no scoop at all, merely a difference of opinion that was not worth pursuing. All I had done, it seemed, was get the Washington Post caught up in one of those JFK conspiracy debates that go nowhere and bore everyone.

I decided to forget about Jane Roman. I no longer cared to risk my left one, thank you Ben Bradlee.

Next: The 'Scelso Deposition': What John Whitten Said