CIA files on Oswald

This is another long-overdue note giving a brief overview of CIA files on Lee Oswald, the man who shot President Kennedy. It is the second in a series of notes on CIA records in the JFKARC. The first note, on CIA docs in HSCA records, is available here.

Note the plural in the title of this post; there were multiple CIA files devoted to Oswald over the years, as well as files where Oswald was mentioned, but was not the main subject. It’s a complicated mess, and this post is not intended to be exhaustive.

Instead, I will cover the way these files are handled in the JFKARC, and to a lesser extent, on the MFF website, which has an extensive collection of CIA-Oswald materials.

Three categories of Oswald files

As pointed out in my first note on CIA records in the ARC, the index to the JFKARC is to be found in the JFK Database, a massive compilation of record metadata which is available from the National Archives (NARA) here. An accurate and convenient online lookup for information in the Database can be found at the MFF website’s JFK Database Explorer.

CIA records make up about 27 percent of the entries in the database.1A breakdown of the contents of the database is available here. Each CIA entry in the database has a “Comments” field which begins with a category code. Comments for records in the CIA-HSCA collection begin with the letters “JFK” or “JFK64”. The Comments field for records in the CIA Oswald files begin with the letters “OSW”.

The main file, aka the Oswald “201 file”, is just plain “OSW”. However, there are also two smaller files in the collection: Oswald’s “Security File” (OSW-SF), and Oswald’s “DCD” file, also known as an “A File” (OSW-A). For a brief description of each of these files, see the Final Report of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB).

The ARRB was a federal Board created by the JFK Act to collect and release the records in the JFKARC. The ARRB was (naturally) very interested in CIA-Oswald material and spent a tremendous amount of time and energy digging in CIA archives and records in search of them. Their short note on the main 201 Oswald files is here. Their more detailed accounting of their pursuit of other records is here.

This page of the ARRB Final Report gives a short description of the Oswald “Security File”, which was compiled by the CIA Office of Security and included some material that was not in the pre-assassination version of Oswald’s 201 file.

Another page of the Final Report gives a short description of Oswald’s DCD “A-File”. It turns out this was not a record of CIA debriefing Oswald, but a 1970s compilation put together when allegations were made of a debriefing.

The ARRB was not particularly trusting of the CIA’s accounting of its records, particularly its Oswald records, and they go on to list some of the records that were not produced immediately after the passage of the JFK Act in 1992 in this passage.

Tracking down the Oswald boxes and folders

Like the HSCA-CIA records, the JFK Database comments field provides “box” and “folder” numbers for all of the CIA-Oswald records. Like the HSCA-CIA records, there are some puzzles in these numbers.

One puzzle is the number of boxes for the Oswald 201 file. As the Final Report notes, this is not a typical 201 file, which is supposed to hold biographical information about an interesting person. Instead, the Oswald 201 has become “a depository for records CIA gathered and created during CIA’s wide-ranging investigation of the assassination”, as the ARRB says.

The “McDonald Survey” cited in my note on CIA-HSCA records said that the 201 file amounted to 16 boxes of records. This is of course a lot of paper, tens of thousands of pages. The ARRB report also cites this number, though it does note that this was the “original” number.

Since the Oswald records have been repeatedly reboxed, however, it should be no surprise that the JFK Database lists records from not 16 but 17 boxes. Don’t know when this happened.2Acting DCI Robert Gates refers to “17 boxes” of Oswald records in a May 1992 statement to Congress here. Many of the records in this “new box” are relatively recent, however.

The folder numbers in the 201 boxes are also rather random, and probably reflect earlier divisions of the material. This is all very technical stuff which would require a lot of research to figure out, and would be incredibly boring to read about.

Another puzzle has to do with Oswald’s OS file. Although records say that there were 7 boxes (or volumes) of material in this file, one of them (box 5) seems to be missing. Most of this must have been newspaper clippings, but figuring out what happened would probably require a trip to NARA.

It is worth noting that there is actually a second copy of the Oswald OS file in the HSCA-CIA records. Comparing the two versions (OSW-SF and HSCA) might answer some questions, and would be an interesting home research project. I’ll put up a note if I find time to do this (and find anything interesting).

Early Oswald releases at MFF

One of the great strengths of the MFF website is that it provides access to record releases from the earliest days of the JFKARC. These allow us to find records which are open at NARA, but not otherwise available online.

The Oswald 201 file is an excellent example of this. Oswald’s 201 was one of the first things the CIA began to declassify, its efforts in this area even predating the JFK Act, signed into law in October 1992.

The MFF has a large collection of these early CIA releases here. It is very hard to match these up with the later releases, but there are many, many records in these early releases that are not otherwise available online. Some of these are of course redacted, but others are already open in full.

This is a very valuable piece of the MFF collection, seldom used, unfortunately.

My two cents

The Oswald files are core files in the JFKARC. Obtaining a complete release of all the documents in the files was one of the main reasons for the passage of the JFK Act, indeed, for the creation of the Assassination Records Collection itself. Unfortunately, there are still a handful of documents in the Oswald 201 with small redactions.

I took a look at the state of the Oswald 201 after the 2022 release (here) and found 30 records still had at least one redaction. I believe that a couple of those records have since become RIF (released in full), but I’m sure the majority are still redacted.

Most of these redactions are people’s names, CIA signatories who retired under cover. A couple are CIA station locations, no idea where, and the rest are probably liaison information, which liaison still doesn’t want released. What do they tell us? Well, who was tapping Cuban embassy phone lines in South America in 1963, things like that.

I would like to see these redactions opened soon, so we can finally put a check mark on this key goal. For now, however, it’s close, but no cigar.