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  • Matt Crumpton

Ep 38: Oswald in Russia (Part 4)

 When we left off, Marina and Lee had finally received all of the necessary approvals from the US and Soviet governments for both of them to travel to America. We’ll return to the details of Marina and Lee’s trip to the US (which included their infant daughter June, who was born in February 1962).


But first, we’re going to go back and tie a bow on a few loose ends related to Oswald’s time in Soviet Union. We’ll try to answer some potentially important questions: Was Oswald’s historic diary authentic? Did he speak any Russian while he was in Russia? Did Oswald ever follow through on his promise to provide secrets to the Soviets? What can we learn from the back and forth between the State Department Office of Security and the CIA when it comes to false defectors to the Soviet Union? And the big question - Was Lee Harvey Oswald a false defector on behalf of American intelligence agencies?


Is Oswald’s Historic Diary Legit?


When we talk about Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union, one of the cornerstones of our understanding of what was going on in his life is his written diary. This document has come to be known as “Oswald’s Historic Diary.” But, as we’ve mentioned already, there are several instances of the diary being in direct conflict with other credible records.


Here are a few of the most notable ones:


·      On the day of Oswald’s alleged suicide attempt, the diary says that Rimma Shirakova arrived at the hotel to pick him up at 8pm. But, Shirakova says that it was closer to 2:30pm. And the doctors at the hospital say that Oswald arrived there at 4pm.[1]


·      The diary says Lee stayed at the Hotel Metropole for all of December, but the American Embassy in Moscow report to the State Department says that Oswald checked out of the hotel in early December.[2]


·      The diary has multiple entries for the 11 days when Oswald is in the hospital, but somehow, he doesn’t mention being in the hospital once.[3]


·      There are numerous other small discrepancies, like, for example, the diary saying that Oswald’s travel visa was good for 5 days, when it was really good for 6 days[4]; the diary saying Oswald was told by the Soviets that he could not stay, when in reality, Shirakova told him this; the November 1st, 1959 diary entry says Oswald received 3 phone calls from his brother and mother, but Marguerite and Robert actually called Lee 2 weeks later – not on November 1.[5]


The Warren Report hypothesized that Oswald began writing this diary while he was in Minsk and that the entries from before Minsk were all written at one time.[6] If that is true, it could potentially explain some of the discrepancies before Minsk. But, that would also mean that the diary is basically unreliable before Minsk.


These discrepancies with the diary beg the question of how exactly did we come into possession of Oswald’s Historic Diary? The diary was first published in Life Magazine on July 10, 1964. Life obtained a copy from news reporter, Hugh Aynesworth, who refused to say exactly how he got the diary pages.[7] We know that the diary was not recovered from Ruth Paine’s house or Oswald’s rooming house because the document wasn’t found, initialed, photographed, or inventoried by Dallas Police detectives.[8] But somehow, Aynesworth found it.


On top of the inconsistencies with the diary itself, Warren Report critics point to potential ties between Hugh Aynesworth and the CIA to suggest that we can’t rely on the diary at all. Aynesworth admitted that the CIA Dallas field office head, J. Walton Moore, contacted him about reporting on Cuba when he was there. But, Aynesworth denies ever working with the CIA or being paid in any way.[9] The FBI investigated how exactly Aynesworth found the diary, concluding that assistant district attorney, Bill Alexander, gave it to him. This was partially because Alexander shared the payout with Aynesworth, when he sold the diary for 5 figures, which was a very large sum at that time.[10]


The HSCA handwriting experts did review the Historic Diary. They were only able to look at one page (July 15, 1961 to January 4, 1962) because the other pages were too badly stained with fingerprint developer.[11] The HSCA experts generally found that the Historic Diary was consistent with at least some other documents written by Oswald. But they also determined that the diary was likely written in one sitting and was not a recording of Oswald’s activities as he was doing them.[12]


But, remember, there is no evidence of the diary in the list of items retrieved by Dallas Police when they thoroughly searched the Paine house and Oswald’s rooming house. So, for me at least, Oswald’s historic diary remains a mystery.


How Was Oswald’s Russian in the USSR?


The question of how good Lee Harvey Oswald’s Russian was is much debated. In a previous episode, we talked about Oswald passing the Russian language test in the marines, and impressing Rosaleen Quinn with his Russian skills.


But, there are a lot of witnesses who say that Oswald didn’t speak any Russian at all when he was in the Soviet Union. For example, when Oswald was in the hospital in Moscow after the attempted suicide, all discussions with Oswald at the Botkinskaya Hospital were in Russian. The doctors wrote QUOTE “The patient apparently understands the questions asked in Russian. Sometimes he answers correctly, but immediately states that he does not understand what he was asked.”[13]


In 1998, researcher John Armstrong interviewed Ana Evelina Ziger, one of the daughters of Oswald’s boss at the factory in Minsk. Ziger said that Oswald did not speak any Russian at all in Minsk![14] Her father would interpret for the rest of the family when Oswald spoke.[15] She was in the family where Oswald hung out 3 or 4 nights a week. But no one in her family ever heard Oswald speak Russian.


When Oswald was in Minsk, he dated only English-Speaking Russian girls and befriended only English speaking guys. If it’s true that Oswald really didn’t even try to speak any Russian while he was in the Soviet Union, one reason may have been that he was worried that if his Russian was too good, then he may be suspected of being a spy – whether he was one or not.[16]


When Oswald met Marina and got to know her well enough to ask her to marry him (and for her to agree), they would have needed a common language to communicate. But, the Warren Report tells us that Marina didn’t speak English and most people in the USSR said Lee didn’t speak Russian in the Soviet Union.


On the other hand, Robert Webster said that Marina spoke English to him. Marina wrote on the back of photos that were taken in Minsk in both Russian AND English.[17] On October 22, 1961, Lee wrote a letter to Marina from Minsk when she was in Kharkov, which was entirely in English.[18] We also know from Marina’s notebooks, such as CE 110, that Marina had near perfect English handwriting, at least in 1963.[19]


According to Robert Oswald’s interview with FBI agent Bardwell Odum, Marina spoke English to Robert. Robert said that, shortly after the assassination in December 1963, he and Marina went away from the group to discuss the terms of a legal contract that was offered to her by business manager, James Martin. The conversation was all in English.[20] James Martin, for his part, told the HSCA that Marina could understand English quite well and she could always make herself understood when she wanted to, but when she didn’t want to answer a question or didn’t understand it, she didn’t.[21]


On the other hand, Marina insisted on having an interpreter present each time she spoke to police, secret service, FBI, or the Warren Commission. And she spoke no English on these occasions.


Did Oswald Actually Offer the Soviets Any Secrets?


As we’ve discussed, Oswald threatened to provide military secrets to the Soviets when he spoke to Richard Snyder and John McVickar at the US Embassy in Moscow. But, did Oswald even have access to valuable military secrets? And if so, did Oswald follow through with his threat of sharing secrets with the Soviets.


Lt. John Donovan told the Warren Commission that when they found out Oswald was in Moscow in mid December, the Marine Corps “changed aircraft call signs, codes, radio frequencies, and radar frequencies…[because] he had access to the location of all bases in the West Coast area, all radio frequencies for all squadrons, all tactical call signs, and the relative strength of all squadrons, number and type of aircraft in a squadron, who was the commanding officer, and the authentication code of entering and exiting the Air Defense Identification Zone. He knew the range of our radio and the surrounding units radio and radar.”[22]


Donovan’s statement is consistent with the memos that were sent from the US Embassy in Moscow to the Office of Naval Intelligence, concerning Oswald’s intent.[23] We know that Naval Intelligence received the information because they wrote back requesting to be kept in the loop.[24]


Given Donovan’s statement to the Warren Commission, it’s safe to say that Oswald did have access to some secrets, and that what he knew was important enough for the Marine Corps to take action to change information up that Oswald would have known about. But, whether he actually provided that secret info – to the extent any of it was still a valuable after the Marine Corps countermeasures – is not known.


When he was trying to get his passport back so that he could return to the States, Oswald told the US Embassy in 1962 that he had not followed through on his threat to share secrets with the Soviets.


Also, according to KGB agent, turned CIA asset, Yuri Nosenko, Oswald was kept under surveillance by the Soviet Intelligence, but they viewed him as mentally unfit.[25] Nosenko told Gerald Posner, quote “KGB was not interested. I cannot emphasize that enough.” Nosenko said that the KGB didn’t care that Oswald was in the marines, QUOTE “First, he wasn’t in the marines any longer. But, even if he had come to us in uniform, we still would have had no interest. What was he in the Marine Corps? A major? A colonel? We had better information already coming from KGB sources than he could ever give us.”[26]


In 1991, the first person to act as liaison between the CIA and the KGB, Slava Nikonov, told his CIA counterpart that Oswald was never a KGB asset or agent in any way whatsoever, though he was watched closely by the KGB while he was in the Soviet Union. He also included that the KGB noted that Oswald a was a poor shooter when he tried target practice in Minsk.[27]


Otto Otepka


In October of 1960, Otto Otepka, the head of the State Department’s Office of Security, found out that 18 US citizens had recently defected to the Soviet Union. This was an unprecedented spike in Soviet defections and Otepka wanted to know what was going on. He assumed that some of these defections probably resulted from false defectors working with the CIA or military intelligence. So, he wanted to make sure that he didn’t take any adverse actions to disrupt the missions of any of these false defectors. But, to do that, he needed to know who the false defectors were.  


Otepka asked the CIA informally for a list of false defectors, but he didn’t get an answer. His concerns were formally raised on October 25, 1960 in a letter from Hugh Cumming of the State Department’s Intelligence and Research Bureau to CIA Deputy Director of Plans Richard Bissell, which requested detailed information on these 18 defectors. And Oswald was on the list![28]


Richard Bissell, the recipient of this letter at the CIA, is the same guy that Jim Angleton’s deputy, Ray Rocca, cryptically implied to the HSCA may have had contact with Oswald. Bissell turned the request regarding the 18 defectors over to Angleton’s counterintelligence division and Sheffield Edward’s CIA Office of Security. In a surprising move, Bissel did not involve the Soviet Russia division, even though they are the ones who had jurisdiction over an issue dealing with Soviet defectors.[29] Why would the Soviet Division of CIA not be looped in on this inter-agency request about American defectors to the USSR?   


The research project was turned over to Robert Bannerman, who was Sheffield Edwards deputy. Bannerman gave it to the Security Research Staff within the Department of Security, led by Paul Gaynor.[30] Gaynor, then assigned the actual work to staffer, Marguerite Stevens.


But, her assignment was worded in a strange way. Stevens was told to look up information on the 18 defectors requested by the State Department, QUOTE “other than Bernon F Mitchell and William H. Martin, and five other defectors whom Mr. Otepka of the State Department already has information on in his files.”[31] Lee Harvey Oswald was one of the five people on the list that Marguerite Stevens was told to avoid in her research.[32]


I could not find any evidence that Otepka had already been given information on Mitchell, Martin, or any of the 5 other defectors. That narrative appears to be a cover story designed to make sure that the CIA did not provide answers on the 7 defectors who Stevens was told to not research. We don’t know for sure that the 7 people were definitely false defectors. But, why else would their identities be surreptitiously taken out of this research project under false pretenses?


Eventually, the CIA sent a full response to the State Department, apparently without researching 7 of the 18 names. Oswald was number 10 on the list and there was a notation next to his name that said SECRET.[33]For what its worth, there are 7 people marked secret, 2 marked confidential (one of them is Robert Webster) and 7 marked unclassified. There were 2 others who were not included at all.


To recap, Otepka knew that the false defector number seemed too high to be realistic and, given that the Soviets have false defectors coming to America, the CIA likely had false defectors going to the Soviet Union. It was the peak of the Cold War after all. When Otepka asks the CIA for information, they bypass the Soviet Russia division within the CIA and go to the Office of Security under Counterintelligence. Then, the person there who finally does the research project is told to not look at Oswald’s records. It seems like the CIA is hiding something related to the 7 people on the list – including Oswald.


After the CIA responded to Otepka’s inquiry about the 18 defectors, his career took a negative turn. Otepka had previously been awarded a Meritorious Service Award for his work leading the Office of Securty by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1958 for “detail, loyalty, devotion to duty and sound judgment.”[34]


But, after he requested the defector files from the CIA, Otepka’s access to sensitive cases was suddenly limited. He was asked to transfer to another division within the State Department, but refused. Otepka found hidden listening devices in his office that had never been there before. He was also assigned to work with former NSA employee, David Belisle.[35]


One night, when Otepka was working late and returned to his office after going to dinner, he found David Belisle and an NSA employee in his office without a good reason to be there. Otepka noticed that his safe had been drilled into and someone had stolen the only material in  the safe, which was Otepka’s study of the 18 American defectors to the Soviet Union, including Lee Harvey Oswald, which Otepka had not yet completed. It was later revealed that his boss, John Francis Reilly, was the one who took Otepka’s files.[36]


Three weeks before the assassination, Otepka was fired from the State Department. He later told journalist Sarah McClendon that he knew who killed JFK, but then declined to comment on the record.[37]


I couldn’t think of any explanation for the facts I just laid out - other than that the CIA was trying to hide the status of some of those 18 defectors – one of them being Lee Harvey Oswald. So, I went to Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History and Gerald Posner’s Case Closed looking for counterpoints. I was surprised to find that there is no mention at all in the indexes of either book when it comes to Otto Otepka.


Was Oswald a False Defector?


This brings us to the big question: was Oswald a false defector to the Soviet Union? So, far, we have the following facts:


-       Oswald flew into Helsinki, which was the only place he could have gotten a soviet travel visa in 24 hours. There was a memo about using Helsinki to get to the Soviet Union quickly the day before Oswald arrived. He knew that he would stay exactly 5 days while in Helsinki, which is how long he stayed.


-       Oswald didn’t have much money, but stayed at the fanciest hotels in Helsinki, booked his entire Russian tour in the most expensive Deluxe class, and stayed at Hotel Metropole in Moscow for weeks.


-       He got help from the highest level of the State Department to pressure the INS to let Marina emigrate to the United States.


-       The CIA specifically did not look into Oswald’s file when asked if he was a false defector, based on the lie (to its internal researcher, Marguerite Stevens) that the CIA had already provided information on Oswald. And then the man who started the inquiry, Otto Otepka, ends up having his safe broken into by his boss and being fired 3 weeks before the assassination.


-       And CIA counterintelligence chief, James Angleton (or someone working closely with him, according to Robert Bannerman) decided not to open a 201 file on Oswald, even though the CIA was reading his mail as part of HTLINGUAL.


There are a few other things to consider when deciding whether Oswald really was a false defector.


A January 26, 1961 memo from the state department talks about how Oswald’s mom thought he may have gone to Russia as a secret agent. The State Department immediately QUOTE “assured her that there was no evidence that her son had gone to the Soviet Union as a secret agent and she should dismiss any such idea.”[38]


James Batelho, who worked with Oswald in Santa Ana said that when he defected to the Soviet Union, it was the talk of the base. Batelho said that he knew Oswald was really anti-soviet from being around him. Batelho told Mark Lane QUOTE “I knew then what I know now, Oswald was on assignment in Russia for American Intelligence.[39]


In 1978, former CIA officer Victor Marchetti told the HSCA that the Office of Naval Intelligence had an operation that was actively attempting to place false defectors in the Soviet Union as spies. The project was run out of Nag’s Head, North Carolina.[40] Marchetti would be in a position to know as the former special assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA. If what he says is true, then that, plus the request for information about false defectors from Otto Otepka confirms that such a Soviet false defector program DID, in fact, exist.


In addition to Marchetti, James Wilcott, who worked as a CIA finance officer from 1957 to 1966 told the HSCA that he had dispersed money for the “Oswald Project” in the late 1950s. He said Oswald was a double agent sent to the soviet union to do intelligence work and that his defection was phony. Wilcott’s information came from CIA personnel he worked with who were certain that Oswald was an agent of the CIA.[41]


Though Wilcott did pass the stress analysis conducted by the HSCA,[42] Wilcott’s testimony about Oswald is not a slam dunk because he is talking about what other people told him as opposed to his personal knowledge. Also, the HSCA, in their final report concluded that they didn’t believe Wilcott’s testimony because other CIA employees who were based in the Soviet post abroad, all said that Oswald was not CIA.[43] But, remember, Oswald’s files skipped the Soviet Russia division. We know that they weren’t kept in the loop for the 201 file or for the Otto Otepka project to identify false defectors.  


In conclusion, all of the reasons I cited earlier, plus the two CIA whistleblowers Marchetti and Wilcott, make it more likely than not, in my view, that Oswald was a false defector to the Soviet Union who was working with the CIA.


NEXT TIME ON SOLVING JFK: We’ll have a recap and rebuttals episode with on Oswald’s time in Russia. Then, we move on to Oswald’s return to the United States, including the introduction of some very important characters to Oswald’s life, like George De Mohrenschildt and Ruth Paine.  

[1] Frontline interview of Dr. Lydia Mikhailina, January 1993, see also Gus Russo, Live by the Sword, p 103; see also John Armstrong, Harvey & Lee at 264.

[2] CE 921.  

[3] CE 24.

[4] Id. Entry on October 19, 1959.

[5] CE 24.

[6] Warren Report at 691.

[8] Armstrong at 263.

[13] Records from Botkinskaya Hospital, National Archives, available at Armstrong CD-ROM: DEF-05.

[14] Armstrong at 287.

[15] Id. at 288

[16] Id. at 262.

[17] WC Stovall Exhibit A.

[18] Armstrong at 339.

[19] CE 110.  

[20] Armstrong 341

[21] Id., National Archives, available at Armstrong CD-ROM: 61-13.

[22] Warren Report, 8H 298.

[23] CE 917.

[24] CE 918.

[25] Gerald Posner, Case Closed, at 35.

[26] Id .at 49.

[29] Armstrong at 306.

[30] John Newman, Oswald and the CIA, at 171.

[31] Id. at 172.

[34] William J. Gill, The Ordeal of Otto Otepka, at 56.  

[35] Armstrong at 308.

[36] Id. (according to what his co-worker Fred Traband told the Eastland Committee)

[37] Sarah McClendon, Mr. President, Mr. President, at 82.

[40] Armstrong at 262.

[41] Id.

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