By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan
In December 1958, Lee Harvey Oswald – U.S. Marine and putative assassin of John F. Kennedy – ended his tour of duty in the Pacific, and was transferred to the El Toro Air Station in California. There, colleagues recalled, Oswald showed a remarkable interest in world affairs – and was especially preoccupied with things Russian.
Oswald applied to take a proficiency examination in Russian. He failed, but showed a basic level knowledge. He was observed laboring over his Russian books, played Russian records, and began addressing people in Russian – whether they understood him or not.
Marine friends nicknamed him “Comrade Oswaldskovich”. A fellow Marine with whom he discussed politics, gained the impression that Oswald thought Communism “the best system in the world”. This was apparently tolerated by the U.S. Marine Corps. Later, oddly, the Warren Commission’s Chief Counsel Lee Rankin asked for further investigation of what Oswald had “studied at the Monterey School”. The Monterey School provided crash languages courses for military personnel – and the reference has never been explained.
In August 1959 Oswald asked for an early release from the Corps on the ground that his ailing mother needed him. He applied for a passport, openly stating that he intended to travel to Russia and Cuba. This did not square with the notion of going home to look after his mother, but there is no sign that the Marine Corps raised any query. The passport was forthcoming, and on September 11, 1959, Oswald was out of the U.S. Marines and on his way.
By mid-October Oswald was in the Soviet Union. Within weeks, he walked into the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. There, according to the Consul Richard Snyder and Vice-Consul John McVickar, Oswald declared his wish to renounce his American citizenship. He slapped his passport down on the table, along with a formal letter that ended, “I affirm that my allegiance is to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”
Oswald declared that he had “voluntarily told Soviet officials that he would make known to them all information concerning the Marine Corps and his speciality therein, radar operation, as he possessed.” He added, in what may have been a reference to his Marine service at a secret U-2 spy plane base, “that he might know something of special interest.” On the face of it, Oswald was now not only a defector, but a traitor.
Oswald’s Soviet adventure lasted two and half years. Then, supposedly disillusioned with life in the workers’ state, he requested permission to return to the United States. By June 1962, he, his Russian wife Marina and new baby were back in the U.S.
What is the truth about Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union? Some speculated that he was part of a covert program to slip individuals into the Soviet Union in the guise of defectors, “sleepers” who could gather information of use to U.S. intelligence. There had been a sudden rash of turncoats in the eighteen months up to 1960, two former Navy men, five Army personnel stationed in West Germany, and two employees of the National Security Agency.
The official story has it that when Oswald defected he went to the American Embassy in Moscow once, visiting the consular office on the ground floor. Yet Joan Hallett, who was married to the Assistant Naval Attaché and worked as a receptionist at the embassy, told us that Consul Richard Snyder and the security officer “took him upstairs to the working floors, a secure area where the Ambassador and the political, economic, and military officers were.” According to Hallett, Oswald came to the embassy “several times” in 1959. Was Hallet mistaken?
Congress’ Assassinations Committee later expressed itself as “extremely troubled” by the fact that the C.I.A., which had previously employed Consul Richard Snyder, was “unable to explain” a reference in his Agency file to “cover.”
There are oddities, too, about the Navy’s response to Oswald’s defection. In California, where he had last served, aircraft call signs, codes, and radio and radar frequencies were changed. Oswald’s former associates recalled being questioned about him by visiting officials in civilian clothes.
In another respect, though, Oswald’s defection was not handled in the same way as those of other military enlisted men. Damage assessments were conducted following the defections of the only two enlisted men known to have gone over to Communist nations before the Oswald episode—and of two others who defected soon after him. In Oswald’s case however, no “formal damage assessment was conducted.”
The callow twenty-year-old Oswald was an improbable candidate for a mission behind the Iron Curtain. Could it be, though, that at a time of concern about the increased number of U.S. defectors, he was seen as a source of information on how the Soviets handled military defectors? Was Oswald an unwitting tool, a genuine leftist whose communications could be monitored and in time—potentially—debriefed? Was he, perhaps unwittingly, primed with false information designed to deceive his Soviet hosts?
The concept of Oswald being used in such way is not merely the notion of conspiracy theorists. A former Chief Security Officer at the State Department, Otto Otepka, said that in 1963 his office engaged in a study of American defectors that included Oswald. Five months before the Kennedy assassination, according to Otepka, the State Department was still uncertain whether Oswald was or had been “one of ours or one of theirs.”
The way the American military and intelligence authorities treated Oswald’s return, or claimed they did, remains unexplained. On leaving active duty, Oswald had signed a form that said clearly that personnel could be recalled “for trial by court-martial for unlawful disclosure of information” and listed the penalties for doing so. There is no known evidence to indicate that the Navy considered prosecuting Oswald.
Marine Corps records reflect no interest in even talking with the prodigal on his return from Russia, let alone putting him on trial. The Office of Naval Intelligence told the FBI it contemplated no action against Oswald.
The FBI, for its part, had not placed Oswald on the list of the thousands of people categorized by the Bureau as potentially disloyal. It had opened a “security case” on him because of his defection, and FBI agents in Texas did pay him a visit on his return. They asked whether he had been approached by Soviet intelligence while in the USSR, and Oswald said he had not. When he declined to take a lie-detector test though, that, effectively, was that. The Oswald “security case” was closed shortly afterward.
At the State Department, meanwhile, a senior official had written that any risk involved in returning Oswald’s passport “would be more than offset by the opportunity provided the United States to obtain information from Mr. Oswald concerning his activities in the Soviet Union.” According to the record, though, Oswald never was comprehensively debriefed.
What of the CIA? Some former defectors were interviewed by the Agency on their return. Robert Webster, a former Rand Development Corporation employee who defected at the same time as Oswald, had been brought to Washington and debriefed by CIA officers and U.S. Air Force personnel for two weeks.
There are parallels between the stories of Webster and Oswald. Webster, a plastics expert working at an American exhibit in Moscow, told U.S. officials of his intention to defect less than two weeks before Oswald did. A former Navy man, Webster had a relationship with a Soviet woman thought to have been linked to the KGB. Marina Prusakova, the Russian woman Oswald married, was also suspected of having intelligence connections. Webster left the USSR, also apparently disillusioned, a fortnight before Oswald.
Oswald and Marina seem, moreover, either to have met Webster or to have learned about him. Marina’s Russian address book contained an address for an apartment building in which Webster had lived. Years later, she told an acquaintance that her husband Lee had defected after working at an exhibition in Moscow. That description matched Webster’s history not Oswald’s. In 1961, when arranging his return to the United States, Oswald himself reportedly “asked about the fate of a young man named Webster who had come to the Soviet Union shortly before he did…”
There are CIA and FBI files, as well, on another American, Marvin Kantor, who was in Russia at the same time as Oswald. Kantor spent time in 1958 and 1959 in Minsk, where Oswald also lived while in the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding official denials that Oswald faced such questioning – the House Assassinations Committee was told the CIA questioned only some returning defectors – tantalizing leads suggest that he did.
One CIA memorandum indicates that officials discussed “the laying on of interviews” with Oswald on his return to the States. Its author, Thomas Casasin [a pseudonym], who had been a senior member of the Soviet Russia Division department responsible for “research related to clandestine operations” in the USSR, recalled having discussed Oswald with two senior colleagues in 1962. In a memo written after the assassination, Casasin wrote:
1. It makes little difference now, but REDWOOD had at one time an OI interest in Oswald. As soon as I had heard Oswald’s name, I recalled that as Chief of the 6 Branch I had discussed . . . the laying on of interview(s) through KUJUMP or other suitable channels. At the moment I don’t recall if this was discussed while Oswald and his family were en route to our country or if it was after their arrival.
2. . . . We were particularly interested in the OI Oswald might provide on the Minsk factory in which he had been employed, on certain sections of the city itself, and of course we sought the usual BI that might help develop target personality dossiers.
“REDWOOD,” we now know, was a CIA cryptonym for “action indicator for information” for the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division. “KUJUMP” was the cryptonym for the Agency’s “Domestic Contact Division.” “OI” stood for “Operational Intelligence.”
The recollections of another former CIA officer—if truthful—would indicate that Oswald was indeed debriefed on coming home. Donald Deneselya, who in 1962 worked in the Soviet branch of the Directorate of Intelligence, was fired by the CIA in 1964—and is thus a controversial figure. According to Deneselya, though, he “reviewed a contact report from representatives of a CIA field office who had interviewed a former U.S. Marine who had worked at the Minsk radio plant following his defection to the USSR.” The Marine, who Deneselya thought may have been Oswald, had been living with his family in Minsk. The contact report he saw, he said, had been four or five pages long.
Denesleya’s claim does not stand entirely alone. A Washington psychiatrist once employed by the CIA recalled having been asked to meet a young American just back from Russia. This had been at the right time, in mid-1962, and the subject had been married to a Soviet wife. After the assassination, the psychiatrist thought he recognized photographs of Oswald as the man he had questioned for the CIA.
Was the man Oswald? There are numerous CIA reports on Marvin Kantor, the other American who had been in Minsk, and who—like Oswald— had once been a Marine. Details about Kantor, however, do not fit the man referred to by either Deneselya or by the psychiatrist. There remains the possibility that the unnamed psychiatrist’s subject might have been returned defector Robert Webster. Webster had lived with a woman in the USSR, but he had not married her and did not bring her with him to the United States.
A former Deputy Chief of the Domestic Contact Division, speaking on condition that he not be identified, has said the CIA did indeed debrief Oswald.
That someone in U.S. intelligence would have questioned the returning Oswald – not least because he had himself declared traitorous intentions while in Moscow – would seem hugely likely. The Agency’s denial of interest in Oswald, author and former Army intelligence officer John Newman has said, is “a big billboard saying there’s something else. . . . There’s an unexplained anomaly, and among the questions it poses is whether or not the Agency had an association with Oswald.”