Part 2: The Ben Bradlee Challenge
I say foolishly because at that point in time pursuing an interest in the Kennedy assassination was among the less sensible career moves one could make in Washington journalism. As a news story, the murder of the American president many years ago was a vast and complex subject that defied summarization in a standard length news story. Public understanding of the event was so polarized that world-weary senior editors toiling in the vineyard of the news cycle were not inclined to believe that there was anything new or conclusive or fresh to report.
And yet. The evidentiary record of the JFK assassination is so contaminated by pervasive misconduct on the part of the FBI and the CIA that the good faith of senior government officials simply could not be assumed. What's more, in the summer and fall of 1994, the JFK Assassination Records Act was yielding a huge number of assassination-related records that had never been seen before.
As I went through these records at the National Archives II building in College Park, Maryland, I wasn't looking for a mythical "smoking gun" document that would show who killed Kennedy. I wasn't looking to vindicate or refute any JFK conspiracy theories. I was looking for someone who could tell me something new and significant about the assassination story. I thought that Jane Roman might be such a person.
In his memoirs, retired Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee wondered if there were any young reporters left who would sacrifice their left testicle for the sake of getting a great story. Bradlee had become a hero to me when I saw "All the President's Men" in a Minneapolis movie theater in 1975 at 17 years of age. I knew right then and there I would work at a newspaper and soon I did. A quarter century later, working as an assignment editor for the Post's Sunday Outlook section, I was always cheered to see Bradlee, recently retired, striding about the Post newsroom, sometimes accompanied by his very pretty and charming wife, Sally Quinn. He was a cheerful lion of a man with more charisma in his cuff links than most of the editors now running the place. His example made me want to sacrifice something for the sake of a good story.
In any case, I was less interested in Jane Roman's opinion about the conspiracy question than what she actually knew. That she knew about Oswald before Kennedy was killed was apparent from the records that the CIA released to the National Archives in the spring of 1994.
The risks of doing a story on Jane Roman, of course, were less anatomical than ideological. The Kennedy assassination is, to many sensible people in official Washington, solely the province of lunatics and apologists and unending dispute. For most of the Washington press corps, the longstanding conviction of a majority of Americans that there was a conspiracy is profoundly unsettling. After all, subscribing to a JFK assassination conspiracy theory amounts to a conviction that, in a moment of extreme crisis, the American political system failed. The people most invested in the capital's way of life--the political and media classes--are prone to reject the notion out of hand. To pursue the possibility that there might be interesting JFK stories was considered dubious in the nation's capital.
The usual justifications for this lack of curiosity struck me as unconvincing. I had heard serious journalists say of the Kennedy assassination, "It's too late. We'll never know." But I knew of plenty of great historical controversies where it took more than 30 or 40 years for the truth to emerge. Think of Alger Hiss's espionage for the communist Soviet Union or Thomas Jefferson's romance with the enslaved Sally Hemming.
Another rationale, perhaps even more common, was the complacent faith that somehow all serious wrongdoing in Washington is eventually exposed. When asked about the possibility of a Kennedy assassination conspiracy in 1992, the late CIA director Richard Helms said, "Something like that would have leaked out by now."
Considering the source, I was hardly reassured. Helms, who died in October 2002, was known as “the man who kept the secrets.” He was one of the most controversial and inscrutable power brokers of mid-20th century Washington. A steely, handsome and efficient Navy man, he rose through the ranks of the CIA after World War II. On the strength of a reputation for not making mistakes, he became deputy CIA director in 1962. Skilled in the arts of flattery and covert violence he made himself indispensable to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He had a budget in the billions and he was discreet. When Congress pressed him to disclose his successful plot to assassinate a Chilean general in October 1970, he lied on the stand to protect Nixon. In one of the more obscure subplots of the Watergate scandal, Nixon fired Helms in January 1973. The revelation two years later of various foreign assassination plots that Helms had masterminded prompted public outrage and a purge at the CIA that swept his loyalists from senior positions. His remarkable tenure as a mandarin ended. Convicted of misleading Congress in 1977, Helms spent his retirement seeking to rebut the agency’s critics, rehabilitate his reputation, and avoid serious questions about the Kennedy assassination. Helms did his best to make sure none of the details of his own staff’s handling (or mishandling) of information about Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 ever “leaked out,” not to the press, not to the Congress, not even, as we shall see, to a trusted colleague.
Besides there were more than a few highly placed people in official Washington who took seriously the possibility of a JFK conspiracy, at least when speaking "off the record." Lyndon Johnson, two cars back behind Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade on November 22, 1963, came to be certain that unknown plotters had killed his predecessor. JFK's guilt-ridden brother, Bobby Kennedy, never shook his initial suspicion that a "high-level domestic political plot" was behind his brother's death, according to Seymour Hersh's book on the Kennedy years.
Senators Russell Long, Richard Schweiker, Robert Morgan, and Christopher Dodd among others thought there had been a conspiracy. Veterans of Texas politics like Henry Gonzalez and members of Kennedy's entourage like Frank Mankiewicz and David Powers felt fairly sure there had been some kind of conspiracy. And in 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) reviewed the ballistic and acoustic evidence and concluded that four shots were fired at Kennedy's motorcade in a single burst -- meaning that there were two gunmen and a conspiracy.
In any case, I was less interested in Jane Roman's opinion about the conspiracy question than what she actually knew. That she knew about Oswald before Kennedy was killed was apparent from the records that the CIA released to the National Archives in the spring of 1994. Roman's initials appeared on a routing slip attached to an FBI report about Lee Harvey Oswald dated September 10, 1963. That was ten weeks before that same Oswald allegedly shot Kennedy. By that date, anti-conspiracy writers such as Gus Russo and Gerald Posner say that Oswald was clearly on a path that would put him in the right place--and in the right state of mind--to kill the president. Oswald had certainly tried to infiltrate one of the CIA’s favorite anti-Castro organizations and become a public spokesman for the leading pro-Castro group in the United States. Even if you assumed Oswald was the lone assassin, the perspective of a CIA paper pusher such as Jane Roman on that moment in time was still interesting, and potentially newsworthy.
What did she make of this character Oswald? What did the CIA make of him as he made his way to Dealey Plaza? Did he raise any alarms?
In due course, this FBI report was delivered to CI/LS, the Counterintelligence Liaison office. A secretary stamped the routing slip "September 24, 1963." Not long after, Jane Roman scrawled her initials on the routing slip.
That the FBI had been interested in Oswald before the assassination has long been known. The report that Roman signed for was known to historians. It had been written by FBI agent James Hosty in Dallas.
Oswald had lived an interesting life, to say the least. He had grown up in New Orleans, Texas, and New York City, enlisted in the Marines, gotten a discharge, defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 out of sympathy for the communist cause, lived there for two years, fell in love with a Russian girl, married her, fallen out of love with real existing socialism and moved back to the Texas in June 1962. This brought him on to the radar screen of the FBI and agent Hosty who worked in the Dallas field office. Via informants and his own legwork, Hosty learned that Oswald had left Dallas in April 1963 and moved to New Orleans. He was still sympathetic to left-wing causes. Hosty sent his report to FBI headquarters in Washington.
According to standard procedure, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover forwarded the memo to the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the agency's File Registry office, a routing slip was stapled to the document. A young woman (for it was only women who did such work in those days) put the file, along with scores of other such files, in a wheeled basket that made the rounds of the agency offices. In due course, this FBI report was delivered to CI/LS, the Counterintelligence Liaison office. A secretary stamped the routing slip "September 24, 1963." Not long after, Jane Roman scrawled her initials on the routing slip.
When I saw those initials on that routing slip 31 years later, I decided that talking to Jane Roman was a risk worth taking. I decided, manfully, I was ready to give "my left one" to get the story.
What a mistake.
|Part 3: The Interview|