Did the FBI destroy evidence of conspiracy?
First of all, let's dispense with the claim that the Texas Attorney General had evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was an FBI informant. In reality, this was a story fabricated by an enterprising Houston reporter, Lonnie Hudkins. Waggoner Carr simply passed the story along to the Warren Commission, which investigated it and correctly classified it as nothing more than a rumor.(2)FLASHBACK TO Dallas FBI Office in 1963. Oswald is at the counter addressing the female receptionist.
SUSIEThis is interesting -- are you ready for this? Oswald went to see the FBI two weeks before the assassination. It seems Special Agent [James] Hosty made three routine visits to his house, supposedly to keep an eye on Marina Oswald.
TIMECUT TO FBI James Hosty confronting his agitated superior, FBI Agent Shanklin in one of his cubicles.
OSWALDI want to see Special Agent Hosty.
RECEPTIONISTI'm sorry, he's not in. Can someone else help you?
OSWALDCan I use a pen?
SUSIE (VOICE OVER)He left a note. Hosty told a Dallas newspaperman it was a warning to him to stop questioning Marina at their home when Oswald was not present. She was not a citizen, so possibly he was threatening to deport her back to Russia.
SUSIE (V.O.) (CONT'D)But what the note really said no one knows because his boss Shanklin told Hosty . . .
SHANKLIN (reading the note)Oswald's dead now. There's no trial. Get rid of it. I don't even want this in the office. Get rid of it, Hosty. (he gives it back to Hosty)
SUSIE (V.O.)Hosty tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. Waggoner Carr, the Attorney General of Texas, says he had evidence from the Dallas Sheriff's office that Oswald had been employed as an undercover informant for the FBI at a salary of $200 a month, beginning more than a year before the murder.
JIM (in present)This is just speculation, people, but what if the note was describing the assassination attempt on JFK?
(the staff seem surprised by the thought)Come on guys, think -- that's the only reason to destroy it, because if it was any kind of threat, like Hosty said, they would've kept it 'cause it makes their case against the "angry lone nut" stronger!(1)
As for the note Oswald wrote to FBI agent Hosty, Oliver Stone's speculation is intriguing, but there are certainly other reasons the note was destroyed.
Let's hear the story straight from the horse's mouth, as Special Agent James Hosty describes in detail the events surrounding this incident, beginning with Hosty's questioning of Lee Harvey Oswald at about 3:15 PM on the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, in the office of Dallas Police Department Homicide chief, Captain Will Fritz:
[FBI agent James] Bookhout gently shut the door, and all of a sudden the room was quieter. Everyone in Fritz's office stopped speaking and turned to look at me. I saw Fritz, two other police detectives, and Oswald all seated in the office. I looked over at a desk against the wall, saw a pad of police affidavit forms, and grabbed it.
I took out my pen, looked at my wristwatch, and then wrote down the exact time: 3:15 PM. I turned to Captain Fritz, who was seated behind his desk, and nodded to him. Then I turned to eye Oswald. My first impression of him was that he was a young punk. He was sitting there with a wise-ass smirk, the kind you wanted to slap off his face as his deep blue eyes, glaring and beady, confronted you eyeball-to-eyeball. He was skinny and small, and even though he was only twenty-four years old, he was already losing his hair -- his hairline had deeply receded. He was clean-shaven, but his hair was mussed. He was wearing a wrinkled white T-shirt and brand-new shiner, still red and slightly swollen, above his right eyebrow. His hands were cuffed behind his back, but even so, he was trying to sit nonchalantly, cocky and self-assured, in the straight-backed wooden chair.
I said, "Special Agent Jim Hosty, with the FBI. I'm here to participate in the interview with the police. I want to advise you of some things. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in court. You also have the right to have an attorney --"
I was interrupted by Oswald. His face had turned ugly, and his whole body jerked in my direction, as if touched by a hot wire. "Oh, so you're Hosty, the agent who's been harassing my wife!" he exploded.
Fritz and Bookhout exchanged puzzled looks. Oswald, clearly having lost his earlier complacency, ranted on. "My wife is a Russian citizen who is here in this country legally and is protected under diplomatic laws from harassment by you or any other FBI agent. The FBI is no better than the Gestapo of Nazi Germany. If you wanted to talk to me, you should have come directly to me, not my wife. You never responded to my request."
Fritz tried to regain control over the interrogation, to put Oswald at ease, which is very critical in the interrogation of any suspect. As any cop knows, you always want to keep a suspect talking. If a suspect gets riled he's likely to clam up on you. While Fritz was speaking to Oswald in the smoothest, most peaceful drawl he could manage, I paused to think for a moment.
I knew Oswald was spewing hot air regarding diplomatic law, but the other things he had said struck a chord. I had in fact on two occasions been to the house where his wife lived, once on November 1 and then again on November 5. The purpose of these visits was to make preliminary contact -- introduce myself and establish the identity, address, and place of employment of the subject in the case, which was a counter-espionage concern. In these initial contacts with Marina Oswald, I was hoping to set up a time to conduct an in-depth interview with her. Both Oswalds -- he being a former Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union and then returned the United States, she a Soviet citizen -- made for a classic counter-espionage case. The question was: Could either of the Oswalds be Soviet intelligence agents? In November 1963, the Bureau had no direct information that the Oswalds were Russian agents, but this was the height of the cold war, and for national security purposes we had to be prudent.
What really struck me about Oswald's outburst in Captain Fritz's office, however, was the realization that it was Oswald who had left me an angry, unsigned note just ten days before. I had the note in my file drawer. It said, in effect: "If you want to talk to me, you should talk to me to my face. Stop harassing my wife, and stop trying to ask her about me. You have no right to harass her."
When I received this note from Nannie Lee Fenner, a former chief stenographer newly demoted to receptionist, I read it and, quite honestly, thought little about it. At the time I was juggling 35 to 40 cases, mostly on radical right-wing subversives, and had no way of knowing who might have written the note. I suspected it had come from a particular radical right-winger I had been investigating, simply because I had recently interviewed his wife.
At any rate, in law enforcement such notes are common. Occasionally I received abusive phone calls and notes from the targets of my investigations. All law enforcement officers do. It's what I called "getting guff." After reading the note, I had tossed it in my file drawer at the office and not given it another thought. That is, not until November 22 at approximately 3:18 PM. . . .(3)
After a quick dinner, I drove back to the Bureau, figuring I could probably get more accomplished there than staring at Oswald through a glass wall. As I walked into the bullpen, which is what we agents called the squad room, a secretary told me I was wanted in [Special Agent in Charge Gordon] Shanklin's office, pronto. When I arrived, I found [Hosty's supervisor] Howe with him. They told me to shut the door.
"What the hell is this?" Shanklin asked, holding what appeared to be a letter. I took it and immediately recognized the anonymous note I had received ten days before. The angry note asking me to leave the writer's wife alone and speak directly to him. The note I had just connected with Oswald less than four hours before. I shrugged. "It's no big deal," I said, "just your typical guff."
"What do you mean, 'typical guff'? This note was written by Oswald, the probable assassin of the president, and Oswald brought this note into this office just ten days ago! What the hell do you think Hoover's going to do if he finds out about this note!" Shanklin, more upset than I had ever seen him, was pacing to and fro behind his desk, puffing on a cigarette.
"What's the big deal? So what if Oswald wrote this note and left it for me? What does that have to do with anything?" I asked. "He had not threatened the president."
"If people learn that Oswald gave you guff a week before the assassination, they'll say you should have known he'd kill the president," Shanklin insisted. "If Hoover finds out about this, he's going to lose it."
I looked over at Howe. His arms were folded across his chest, his expression grave. He obviously agreed that the note could spell big trouble for us with Hoover. I kept shaking my head, insisting that the note was no big deal. "If we simply explain everything: how we got the note, what it means, the background, et cetera, they'll understand there was no way in hell we could possibly have predicted or even guessed that Oswald was going to kill anyone, much less the president. I tell you, this little note is no big deal," I repeated.
Shanklin was rubbing his neck, still not convinced. Finally he said, "Okay, go do a memo right now explaining all the circumstances surrounding the note, and give it to me. I'll think about it."
I left his office and went to the first available steno I saw, Martha Connolly. I told her I had an urgent memo to dictate, so she interrupted what she was doing and took up her note pad. I dictated a memo explaining how Oswald had come into the Dallas FBI office on or about November 12 while I was out of the office.
Oswald had approached the receptionist, Nannie Lee Fenner, and asked to speak with me. She told him I was out and asked if he would like to leave a message. Oswald gave her an unsealed envelope, told her to give it to me, and left. Fenner reported that she had given the note to Kyle Clark, an assistant special agent in charge, who read it.
Clark handed it back to Fenner, told her it was no big deal, and said to give it to me. Fenner put the note in my in-box. When I came back to the office I read the note and saw that it was unsigned, which meant that it could have come from anyone of the subjects whose cases I was working on at the time. I had spent not another minute thinking about it, until today.
Martha quickly finished typing the memo and gave it to me to proofread. I did, thanked Martha for her help, took the two-page memo back to Shanklin's office, and handed it to him. He thanked me and put the memo, together with the note from Oswald, in the "Do Not File" drawer in his desk.
In the Hoover FBI, every SAC [Special Agent in Charge] had a "Do Not File" drawer. This was where he kept his personal notes on all his agents, so that when he did annual evaluations of each agent he had notes to work from. Personnel matters were treated confidentially, so everyone knew this was the SAC's most private drawer. The material kept in this drawer never entered the official record. Occasionally all the instructions and supporting paperwork for a particularly sensitive or controversial mission were kept in the drawer, and destroyed as soon as they were no longer needed. The absolute privacy of this drawer afforded Hoover "plausible deniability" -- if an objectionable action or mission did reach the public eye, Hoover could claim to know nothing about it, since it had never officially occurred.
Shanklin maintained a file folder on each of us, so my file is where I assumed he placed my memo and the note. I left his office; across the squad room I spotted Howe.
"Ken, how did Shanklin find out about the Oswald note so fast?" I asked. Howe explained that after Oswald was arrested and his picture was shown on all the TV stations, Fenner recognized him as the guy who had brought the note in ten days ago. She reminded Clark about the note, but Clark couldn't recall it. Then Fenner told Howe and Shanklin.
In 1979 I learned from Clark that he had received a call the day of the assassination from Bill Sullivan, one of Hoover's other top assistants, who told him to make sure I did not see the communiqué from the D.C. field office about Oswald writing to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. [See Hosty's book, Assignment: Oswald.]
Clark then told Howe to keep the communiqué -- which had just arrived the day of the assassination -- and any others concerning Mexico City from me. Howe knew I had already seen the communique that afternoon, but he decided to remove it and other related memos from my file drawer so I couldn't see it again. Going through my file drawer, Howe came across the Oswald note and took it to Shanklin. Howe said Shanklin instantly became livid. How was this going to appear to the public, and especially to Hoover, he wanted to know.
I told Howe I still didn't think the note was that big a deal, and what we had to do was put it in context. Howe shrugged. I went back to my desk and began reviewing my Oswald file again. . . .(4)
Article continues below.
FBI Special Agent James Hosty
[November 24, 1963] TIME: 6:00 PM
Since it was Sunday, Shanklin had let most of the clerks and stenos go home a little earlier. After they left, the agents working in the field were informed by radio or telephone to make sure they were back in the office by 8:00 PM for an all-agent meeting. I continued to work in the almost deserted office.
Howe told me Shanklin wanted to see me in his office. Throughout the day, Shanklin had been in constant telephone contact with his mentor, Johnnie Mohr, in Washington. Mohr, one of two deputy associate directors, was in charge of all non-investigative matters; in the pecking order, he was Hoover's number-four man. I had heard a story that years ago, when Shanklin was the SAC in another city, he had taken the fall on a matter for which Mohr was actually responsible, and as a result Mohr was greatly indebted to him. All the agents in Dallas knew that whenever Shanklin was in a tight spot or in need of advice, he turned to Mohr. Mohr understood Hoover's frequent tirades and was often called upon by different SACs to guide them through turbulent waters. As one SAC put it about Mohr, he may be an S.O.B. at times, but he's our S.O.B. Shanklin was a typical SAC in the Hoover FBI in that he wouldn't blow his nose until he first cleared it with someone. Shanklin almost always consulted Mohr for his clearances.
As I walked into Shanklin 's office, Howe was right behind me. I stood in front of Shanklin's desk. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Howe standing in the doorway watching. I could tell by his expression that something was up, Shanklin cradled his cigarette in the ashtray and stood up behind his desk.
"Jim, now that Oswald is dead, there clearly isn't going to be a trial," he began, reaching down into his open "do not file" drawer. He pulled out the note that Oswald had delivered to this office ten days before the assassination, as well as the memo I had dictated on Friday explaining how I had come to receive the note. He thrust them at me, and said, "Here, take these. I don't want to ever see them again."
I took the memo and note from him and looked at him questioningly. Though I knew he was exhausted, he looked totally in control. Smoke from his cigarette billowed out of his nose. He was deadly serious, his eyes staring at me calmly.
I must have looked concerned or perplexed, which Shanklin instantly read.
"Look, I know this note proves nothing, but you know how people will second-guess us," he explained. I knew who those "people" were: Hoover and some of his lackeys. Monday morning quarterbacking was legendary in the FBI, with some of the higher-ups sure to run through a thousand "what-ifs."
Without really thinking any more about it, I began tearing up the note and memo right there in front of Shanklin and Howe.
"No! Not here! I told you, I don't want to see them again. Now get them out of here," Shanklin insisted.
I walked out of his office with the partially torn papers. Kyle Clark, the ASAC, was sitting at his desk in his office next to Shanklin's. When I walked by the open door to his office, I saw him look up quickly. As I walked on a few steps farther, Clark jumped up and went into Shanklin's office, shutting the door.
I was left alone with the job of destroying the papers. I walked past my desk, realizing I couldn't do it there. In fact, I thought, if I was going to do this, I needed to be alone.
I walked out to the stairwell and down half a flight of stairs to the landing where the men's bathroom was. I walked into the empty bathroom and went to the first toilet stall.
I didn't smoke, so I had no matches. I tore the papers into smaller pieces, and then threw the scraps of paper into the toilet. I pushed the flush handle and watched as the remnants of Oswald's note and my memo swirled around in the small whirlpool of water. Then they were gone. Forever.
Down the drain, I thought. Literally. I hoped the cliché didn't turn out to be prophetic.
I went back up the stairs, walked over to my desk, sat down, and tried to pull my thoughts together. There was no doubt that this note was ordered destroyed to keep Hoover from finding out about it. If Hoover had found out he would have blown up, and probably done something stupid. In my mind, I knew that Shanklin was operating under either the order or approval of someone back at headquarters. I figured it had to be Mohr. There was no way Shanklin would have ordered the destruction of the note unless he had first had some kind of go-ahead. He was just too damn cautious to give such an order without first running it by higher-ups.
In 1942, when I joined the Army as an eighteen-year-old, one of the first lessons I learned was that in battle a private had to blindly obey orders. He had to have full faith that the commander who gave the order knew what he was doing. The theory was that while it might appear to the GI in the trenches that the order was wrong or ill-conceived, he had to understand that he was only aware of his immediate surroundings, whereas the commander had a full view of the battlefield. When receiving an order, a private also didn't ask the colonel which general gave the order, or whether the colonel had given the order himself.
In many ways, the FBI was like the military, and I knew that the top brass back at headquarters had a full view of the battlefield. I also knew that Oswald had had some recent contacts with the Soviets, and therefore deduced that this whole sorry matter must have some serious international implications. I didn't know what was going on back in Washington, but Shanklin did. Something was afoot, and it smelled like cover-up.
At my desk, I said a prayer. I prayed that the people back in Washington knew what the hell they were doing.(5)
For more information, see researcher
Steve Bochan's 1996 interview with James Hosty.
Copyright © 2001 by David Reitzes
You may wish to see . . .
The JFK 100: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?
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Back to Oliver Stone's JFK
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1. Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Applause, 1992), pp. 132-33. All quotations are from the shooting script and may vary slightly from the finished motion picture. In reality, Jim Garrison and his staff did not have information about Oswald's note to Hosty during their investigation, as its existence was concealed by the FBI until 1975.
2. James P. Hosty, Jr., with Thomas Hosty, Assignment: Oswald (New York: Arcade, 1996), p. 124. A fuller account by Hugh Aynesworth, who was in on Hudkins's deception, is contained in Larry A. Sneed, No More Silence (Dallas: Three Forks, 1998), pp. 31-32.
3. James P. Hosty, Jr., with Thomas Hosty, Assignment: Oswald (New York: Arcade, 1996), pp. 20-21.
4. James P. Hosty, Jr., with Thomas Hosty, Assignment: Oswald (New York: Arcade, 1996), pp. 29-31.
5. James P. Hosty, Jr., with Thomas Hosty, Assignment: Oswald (New York: Arcade, 1996), pp. 59-61.
You may wish to see . . .
The JFK 100: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?
Back to the top
Back to The JFK 100
Back to Oliver Stone's JFK
Back to Jim Garrison menu
Back to JFK menu
Dave Reitzes home page