WHAT JANE ROMAN SAID
A Retired CIA Officer Speaks Candidly About Lee Harvey Oswald
By Jefferson Morley
People who say there's nothing new to be learned about the Kennedy assassination don't know the story of John Whitten.
The ‘Scelso Deposition’: What John Whitten Said
Over the years, my Jane Roman story became the subject of intermittent, heated exchanges on alt.assassination.jfk, the most informative JFK chat group on the Internet. In these discussions, people who didn’t know me, had never spoken to me (or to Jane Roman) called me a fraud, a failure, a faker, and a conspiracy theorist. Others suggested I might be on to something. Oliver Stone described me a “very conservative reporter” which I took as a compliment.
For the most part, I stayed out of the online discussions and away from the JFK assassination conferences. I disliked the low ratio of new facts to old opinions. I stayed in touch with John Newman who continued teaching at the University of Maryland while writing a book about U.S. policy toward Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s. We took comfort from new evidence that corroborated what Roman had said.
For example, the JFK Assassination Records Review board released several chapters from an unpublished memoir written by Win Scott, the man who had been serving as chief of the CIA’s Mexico City station in 1963. Scott, renowned among colleagues for his photographic memory, wrote that Oswald was the object of “keen interest” from the moment he arrived in Mexico City.
That was the exact same phrase that Roman had used and it contrasted sharply with the CIA’s official story that Oswald was a passing stranger of no particular interest.
More corroboration came in May 1996 when the JFK Records Review Board released a sworn deposition given by a retired CIA official known only as “John Scelso.” Scelso was a cover name for John Whitten, a former senior staffer in the Western Hemisphere division of the covert operations directorate. Whitten’s identity was so sensitive that it was illegal to publish it until October 2002, when the CIA finally declassified his name.
People who say there’s nothing new to be learned about the Kennedy assassination don’t know the story of John Whitten. A native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he fought for the U.S. Army in Europe during World War Ii. He began working on embassy security and became a career CIA man. Brilliant and decisive, he rose in the government’s civil service earning the highest possible GS-17 ranking, and a reputation for cracking espionage puzzles. He won a medal for pioneering the use of the polygraph for the intelligence community. In November 1963, he was trusted.
Less than a day after Kennedy’s death, Dick Helms put John Whitten in charge of the agency’s review of files related to accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Assisted by a staff of 30 people, Whitten went to work. But as he plowed through mountains of paper, Helms thwarted his efforts. When Whitten complained, Helms relieved of his duties. Whitten went back to his desk, kept his own counsel, retired, and moved overseas. In 1978, congressional investigators found him living in self-imposed exile and interviewed him in secret session.
Under oath Whitten described how he had pursued his investigation around the clock for a couple of weeks after the assassination. His testimony confirmed the unusual handling of pre-assassination information about Oswald.
He was asked about the cable of October 10, 1963 which Jane Roman had described as “very dull, very routine.” Whitten was puzzled that someone as senior as Tom Karamessines had signed off on it. Standard agency procedures involving reporting on Americans abroad, he said, did not normally require such high-level attention.
Accounting for Oswald’s Cuba-related activities proved especially difficult, he testified. In early December 1963 Whitten was writing up what he had gleaned from CIA files, when he was invited to the White House for a look at the FBI’s preliminary report on Oswald. Reading the report, Whitten was shocked. The FBI had all sorts of information about Oswald that had never been given to him. Whitten went back to his office realizing that deputy director Dick Helms and counterintelligence chief James Angleton had been withholding “vital information” about the accused assassin from him.
“Could you give us some examples of that?” his interrogator asked.
Whitten remembered quite clearly.
“Yes,” he said. “Details of Oswald’s political activity in the United States, the pro-Cuban activity…” Later on he reiterated the point: “Oswald’s involvement with the pro-Castro movement in the United States was not at all surface[d] to us in the first weeks of the investigation,” he said.
Why would Helms and Angleton not share such information his colleague in charge of the agency’s investigation of Oswald?
Whitten never found out. He testified that as soon as he learned he had been denied key files on Oswald, he complained to Helms around Christmastime 1963. His initial conclusion that Oswald had acted alone, he said, was “obviously, completely irrelevant in view of all this Bureau information.” Helms relieved him of his responsibilities.
Whitten kept his distance from Helms after that experience. He was bothered by Helms’s failure to give him files on Oswald’s Cuba-related activities. He was appalled to learn in the 1970s that Helms had been organizing a conspiracy to kill Castro in November 1963 and failed to share information about the plots with the Warren Commission. Helms’s actions were “completely morally reprehensible,” he said. Like Jane Roman, Whitten was an insider who could recognize the subtleties of what was going on in the CIA’s Directorate of Plans at the time of Kennedy’s death. Unlike Roman, Whitten was bothered by what he saw and said so under oath.
Is Whitten’s deposition important?
John Tunheim, the federal judge who served as chairman of the JFK review board, once told men, “the so-called ‘Scelso deposition’ was perhaps the single most important documents we uncovered.”
Whitten, unfortunately, is not available to comment on it. He died in January 2000. I had attempted to locate him and interview him before his death but failed. I’m not sure it would have made any difference. It would have been illegal for him to talk about the Kennedy assassination on the record with the Washington Post.
Next: Dick Helms' Man in Miami