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

Jane Roman agreed that certain CIA officials made an affirmative decision to withhold information about Oswald from their colleagues before the assassination.

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.

‘A keen interest in Oswald’

The agency’s interest in Oswald in late 1963, Roman explained, was the result of his involvement with the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee, often known by its acronym, FPCC. The agency had wiretap transcripts proving that the FPCC was funded by the Cuban government, via Castro’s delegation at the United Nations in New York. It was Oswald’s FPCC activities that most interested the counterintelligence staff in 1963, she said.

Newman then reviewed the routing slips on two documents about Oswald that Roman herself had received in September 1963.

The first was the FBI report from agent Hosty in Dallas. Hosty reported on Oswald’s address in the summer of 1963 and his recent leftist political activities, including his subscription to the Socialist Worker newspaper.

The second report was more provocative. It was a report from the FBI in New Orleans, dated September 23, 1963. Oswald, it seemed, had gotten arrested. He had been handing out FPCC pamphlets on a street corner in New Orleans on August 9, 1963 when he was confronted by some members of the militantly anti-Castro group called the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil or DRE, which was known to North American newspaper readers as the Cuban Student Directorate. An altercation ensued. Oswald and some of the Cubans were arrested. An agent in the New Orleans office of the FBI wrote up a report and sent it to Washington.

The FBI, it should be noted, was not the only organization interested in Oswald’s political activities. The Cuban students were also collecting intelligence on the young ex-Marine.

The Cuban Student Directorate, long since forgotten, was among the most prominent anti-Castro organizations of the day. Composed of exiled middle-class students from the University of Havana, the Directorate rallied young people in Miami against Castro’s communist movement. It won headlines around the world for sensational actions such as attempting to assassinate Castro outside a Havana hotel in August 1962.  At CIA headquarters in Langley the group was known by the code name AMSPELL. With the U.S. support, the Directorate flourished and established chapters in cities throughout North and South America in the early 1960s.

The Directorate followed up on Oswald’s antics just as the FBI did. In August 1963, the New Orleans delegation of the group reported to the Directorate’s headquarters in Miami that a Castro supporter named Oswald was trying to infiltrate their ranks.  The Directorate leaders in Miami authorized the New Orleans chapter to issue a press release denouncing Oswald’s pro-Castro ways. The New Orleans students also challenged Oswald to a debate on a local radio program. When Oswald accepted they made a tape of his remarks criticizing U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Of course, none of this was in the FBI records. At the time of our interview with Jane Roman, Newman and I knew only that the Directorate had received funding from the CIA under a program with the code name of AMSPELL. There was, it turns out, much more to know. All we had was the FBI report on the arrest of Oswald and his antagonists in the Cuban Student Directorate that was forwarded to the CIA. The routing slip showed that Roman signed for it on October 4, 1963.

Newman recounted the circumstances in which she signed for the report. Five weeks after his brawl with the Cuban Student Directorate in New Orleans, Oswald had caught a bus to Mexico City where he visited both the Cuban and Russian diplomatic offices seeking a visa. The CIA surveillance team watching two offices figured out the visitor’s name was Lee Oswald. The surveillance team reported their finding to David Atlee Phillips, the chief of Cuban operations in Mexico City. Phillips notified his boss, Win Scott, the chief of the Mexico City station. On October 8, 1963, Scott sent a cable to headquarters in Washington asking for more information about Oswald. Two days later, headquarters sent a response.

This was the next document that Newman gave to Roman for her perusal. She had helped prepare it thirty-one years before.

This three-page cable, dated October 10, 1963, seems innocuous. It was drafted by a woman named Charlotte Bustos. She worked on the Mexico desk of the CIA. It was her job to handle such routine inquiries. She did this by checking to see if the agency had ever opened a so-called 201 file on anyone named Lee Oswald. (A 201 file, sometimes known as a personality file, is opened on anybody of interest to the agency.) Because of his defection to the Soviet Union in 1959, Oswald already had a 201 file at CIA headquarters. Bustos reviewed it and drafted a reply. By the end of the workday on October 10, 1963, her draft had been revised by other CIA offices for coordination, authentication, and approval. No CIA cable could go out with such vetting.

The markings at the bottom of the document indicated which offices and which officers had been consulted. Jane Roman was identified as one of the officers who had seen in the cable “in draft form.” The cable was also seen by an “authenticating officer” whose task it was to vouch for its contents. That was J.C. King, the chief of all CIA operations in the Western Hemisphere. Finally, the cable had to be signed by a “releasing officer” who approved the policy contents of the message. That was Tom Karamessines, who served as top deputy to covert operations chief, Richard Helms.

At 10:28 p.m. on the night of Wednesday, October 10, 1963, the cable went to Mexico City.

Partisans of the anti-conspiratorial interpretation of Kennedy’s death stress that this cable was routine. It certainly seems to be, despite the hour at which it was sent. In the cable, Karamessines passed on to Mexico City what the agency purported to know about Lee Oswald: that he had defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959, that he had married a Russian woman, and that he had moved back to the United States in the spring of 1962. The cable stated that the “latest HDQS [headquarters] info[rmation]” about this young American was a State Department report from May 1962, which stated that his time in the Soviet Union had “a maturing effect” on him.

In the interview, Newman called Roman’s attention to this seemingly minor statement.

“It’s not even a little bit untrue,” he noted bluntly. “It’s grossly untrue.”

The juxtaposition was clear.

On the table was one cable which showed that Roman had signed off on the statement that the “latest HDQS info” on Oswald was a report from State Department report dated May 1962. 

On top of that cable was the cable and routing slip that showed she had just a few days before signed for the two FBI reports on this same Lee Harvey Oswald. She had signed for the second of these reports on Oct. 4, 1963.  

Newman’s implication was clear. If Roman had read the FBI reports, then she knew on October 10, 1963 that Oswald had just a few weeks earlier been handing out pamphlets on behalf of the FPCC, the most prominent pro-Castro organization in the United States. Moreover, Oswald’s pro-Castro activism had embroiled him in an altercation with members of the Cuban Student Directorate, one of the agency’s most favored front groups in the anti-Castro cause. All of this information was on Jane Roman’s desk in October 1963.

The logical conclusion: On October 10, 1963 the “latest HDQS info” on Oswald wasn’t a 17-month old State Department memo speculating about Oswald’s state of mind. It was a month-old FBI document about Oswald’s contacts with a CIA-sponsored organization. And Jane Roman—if she had done her job—had known it.

Roman thought carefully about what Newman was suggesting. Her response was telling. She didn’t deny that she had read the FBI reports on Oswald. She couldn’t--not with her initials on the routing slips.

Instead, Roman spoke about who had responsibility for the handling the contents of a cable about Oswald. She said the responsibility did not belong to CI/LS but to another office in the agency’s Directorate of Plans: the Special Affairs Staff (SAS). She was precise on why the cable didn’t it mention Oswald’s most recent activities, namely his clash with the anti-Castro Cubans in New Orleans.

“The only interpretation I could put on this [the language of the cable] would that this SAS group would have held all the information on Oswald under their tight control,” she said.

In the fall of 1963, the SAS was a new bureaucratic entity in the CIA. Created at the behest of the Kennedy White House, it was tasked with overthrowing of the government of Cuba without too much “noise,” meaning domestic political consequences. It was the bureaucratic incarnation of John and Robert Kennedy’s secret but abiding determination to remove Fidel Castro from power. It was created after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was resolved. When the showdown over Soviet missiles in Cuba ended peacefully, Castro’s grip on power was stronger than ever.

Some thought JFK had squandered an opportunity to get rid of Castro. Others thought he had acted prudently. There was consensus that Operation Mongoose, the Kennedy brothers’ first covert program to oust the charismatic communist, was going nowhere. The SAS was created in January 1963 to take over the job. As for tactics, the Kennedy brothers didn’t care what SAS did as long as the White House had plausible deniability. The SAS operatives tried everything from assassination conspiracies to propaganda to political action to “psychological warfare,” the contemporary term of art for espionage that deceived and disoriented and divided the communists. Along the way, some of the SAS men became interested in the very obscure character named Lee Harvey Oswald.

At least that was Jane Roman’s reading of the cables.

These SAS men were being very careful with what they knew about Oswald. Under their tight control. Roman stressed that she was not privy to such things. She said that, for the counterintelligence staff, running such a check on a then-unknown personality like Oswald was simply mundane duty.

“All these things that you have shown me so far before the assassination would have been very dull and very routine,” she said.

That was very likely true, and Newman didn’t dispute it. He stressed a different point: that Roman, having read the FBI cables on Oswald and having seen the draft form of the cable to Mexico City, personally knew that the line about “latest HDQS info” on Oswald was not entirely accurate.

“You had to know that this sentence here was not correct,” Newman said.

“Well, I had thousands of these things,” Roman protested.

“I’m willing to accept whatever your explanation is,” Newman allowed, “ but I have to ask you this--”

Roman was getting testy.

“And I wasn’t in on any particular goings-on or hanky-panky as far as the Cuban situation,” she added.

“Right, so you wouldn’t have”--Newman groped for the right words, “what you’re saying is” He finished the thought: “…tried to examine it that closely?”

“Yeah, I mean, this is all routine as far as I was concerned,” she answered.

“Problem though, here,” Newman noted. He pointed to the line in the cable about “latest HDQS info.”

Roman understood his point and finally conceded it:  “Yeah, I mean I’m signing off on something that I know isn’t true.”

I’m signing off on something that I know isn’t true.

This was doubly interesting. Roman was not only acknowledging not only was somebody in SAS interested in Oswald six weeks before Kennedy was killed. She was stating that whoever that somebody was made an affirmative decision to withhold information about him from other CIA officers before November 22, 1963.

Newman did not dwell on the point. He did not imply that Roman was involved in anything sinister. She was merely saying that she participated in drafting a cable in which the men higher up in the clandestine operations division chose not to tell the whole truth—something that was in the nature of their jobs.

Responsibility for the cable on Oswald, Roman said, belonged to the most senior officer who signed it, Tom Karamessines.

She was no doubt correct. Karamessines was Dick Helms’ right hand man. While Helms was sleek and bland, an Ivy Leaguer who was barbered to the nines and kept a clean desk, Karamessines was an earthy assimilated New Yorker. He had distinguished himself as a frontline soldier in the vicious Greek civil war of 1946-48. He went on to become the chief of the CIA station in Athens, the largest outpost of U.S. intelligence in the Near East. There he recruited a large number of Greek-Americans to work for the agency.  In March 1962, Helms made him his top assistant and trusted him totally.

Newman wanted to know how Roman, with the benefit of hindsight, interpreted the contents of the cable about Lee Harvey Oswald that Tom Karamessines’ signed and sent to Mexico City late on the night of October 10, 1963.

“What does this tell you about this file, that somebody would write something they knew wasn’t true?” he asked.

“And I’m not saying that it has to be considered sinister, don’t misunderstand me,” Newman added. “It is one thing if I don’t say anything, I tell you ‘You don’t have a need to know.’ But if I tell you something that I know isn’t true, that’s an action [that] I’m taking for some reason. … I guess what I’m trying to push you to address square on here is, is this indicative of some sort of operational interest in Oswald’s file?”

This was the key question of the interview and Roman took it head on.

“Yes,” she replied.  “To me its indicative of a keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need to know basis.”

A keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need to know basis.

Parsing this burst of intelligence jargon raised several questions.

“A keen interest” in Oswald required specific CIA personnel to be interested. Who?

These unknown senior CIA officials “held very closely” information about the accused assassin’s political activities before he killed Kennedy. Why would they do such a thing?

It occurred to me then that it was quite possible, even probable, that Jane Roman had been “out of the loop” back in 1963. It might well have been the first time that she had even thought about the question. Why had her colleagues send a cable to Mexico City stating that the latest information on Oswald was 17 months old when she (and others) had much more recent reports in hand?

Roman’s reply was thoughtful, not defensive.

“There wouldn’t be any point in withholding it [the recent information about Oswald],” she answered. “There has to be a point for withholding information from Mexico City.”

This was the third important insight that Roman offered: There has to be a point. There had to be a reason why unknown colleagues chose to withhold information from Win Scott in Mexico City.

Newman agreed. He offered his belief that “somebody made a decision about Oswald’s file here.” Somebody, meaning one or more of her CIA colleagues in Washington.

Roman understood his implication: some specific people in the CIA hierarchy were deliberately manipulating information about Oswald weeks before Kennedy was killed. She mulled the possibilities.

“Well, the obvious position which I really can’t contemplate would be that they [meaning the people with final authority over the cable] thought that somehow … they could make some use of Oswald,” she said.

This was both fair and precise. Roman was not saying that she knew or believed somebody in the CIA was trying to make use of Oswald seven weeks before he allegedly shot Kennedy. But clearly she thought it was possible based on the paper trail in front of her. In any case, Roman did not dispute Newman’s underlying point. In fact, she said she basically agreed with it—with one reservation.

“I would think that there was definitely some operational reason to withhold it [the information at headquarters on Oswald], if it was not sheer administrative error, when you see all the people who signed off on it.”

Jane Roman would later tell confidants that “administrative error” could explain everything in the Oswald paper trail. On the tape of the interview, Roman’s tone of voice when she says “administrative error” sounds more ironic than emphatic, at least to my ears. Roman did not elucidate how “sheer administrative error” might account for the misstatement about headquarters’ knowledge of the recent activities of Oswald. She did not acknowledge any administrative errors of her own or of anybody else. She did not pursue the point. With the documents in front of her, Roman could not and did not explain how “administrative error” created the Oct. 10, 1963 cable.

As she herself said, “There had to be a point.”

For me, that was the clincher. Roman agreed that the cable traffic about Oswald showed that somebody in the CIA covert operations division was thinking carefully about Oswald before Kennedy was killed. I came away certain that Jane Roman did not know who that somebody was.

After the interview was over, the three of us chatted for a while. Roman made clear that she thought conspiratorial explanations of the Kennedy assassination were absurd. She said that she believed the leaders of the Warren Commission were men of integrity capable of uncovering the truth. She said she had no reason to doubt their finding that Oswald acted alone. She bore considerable animus toward Oliver Stone for making a popular movie that suggested otherwise.

We stressed that we were interested in thoroughly exploring what the new JFK records showed and thanked her for her time.

Next: The Dead End