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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

"JFK: Destiny Betrayed" Misleads on Otto Otepka

Screen shot from JFK: Destiny Betrayed

Oliver Stone's so-called documentary series, JFK: Destiny Betrayed, misleads viewers into believing that Otto Otepka uncovered evidence that Oswald was a fake defector. Otepka's whole career was built on finding communist subversion and his suspicions about Oswald were driven by his anti-communism. There is no evidence to support the allegation that Otepka believed Oswald was a fake defector.

Here is an excerpt from a transcript: (1:27 in episode four, in a segment called "Fingerprints of Intelligence")

Richard Schweiker: This report [Church Committee, Book V on the Performance of the Intelligence Agencies in the JFK Assassination] documents the failures of the U.S. intelligence establishment in their investigation of President Kennedy's assassination, and their coverup to the Warren Commission.

Whoopi Goldberg: During the 1975 Church Committee investigation of U.S. intelligence activities, committee member Richard Schwieker, in an interview at the time, remarked about Oswald, that "everywhere you looked with him, there are fingerprints of intelligence." Those fingerprints extended back to 1959 when Oswald defected to the Soviet Union. State Department intelligence officer Otto Otepka had noted the marked increase in the number of Americans defecting to Russia at the time. He also noted that some of them came from the military. He therefore suspected that some of these men were fake defectors. They had been assigned by the CIA to garner intelligence behind the iron curtain. He sent a letter to the CIA, asking which ones were real and which were their agents. Oswald was one of the names on Otepka's list. Otepka's request was forwarded to James Angleton, Chief of Counterintelligence. He instructed that there be no research done on Oswald, but Otepka continued to work on the Oswald case.

Lisa Pease: The only thing of significance was that he was really interested in Lee Harvey Oswald before the assassination. And he actually had a study of these defectors in his safe. Well, things got worse. His office was not only bugged but they planted people in his office to spy on him. They started putting confidential documents in his burn bag and then tried to blame him and say "he's burning confidential documents. The guy's gone, y'know, wacko."

Whoopi Goldberg: As a result, he was formally removed from the State Department on November 5, 1963. just seventeen days before the assassination. And you will not see Otepka's name in the Warren Report and he was not called as a witness before that body. In fact, James Angleton, the man who had access to all the Oswald files at the CIA, coordinated the agency's response to the Warren Commission's requests.

Just who was Otto Otepka? He was the former chief of the State Department's Office of Security (SY), and he had been the "leading expert on Communist subversion in the State Department." Otepka's office worked closely with the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) which held hearings on the "loss of China" in 1949 and then later on the "loss of Cuba." Part of the job of the Office of Security was to evaluate members of the diplomatic corps for loyalty.

For anybody interested in Otto Otepka, I heartily recommend Eric Paul Roorda's 2007 article in Diplomatic History, "McCarthyite in Camelot: The "Loss" of Cuba, Homophobia, and the Otto Otepka Scandal in the Kennedy State Department." You can download it here:

roorda on otepka
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After the 1954 election, Otepka started a comprehensive review of State Department employees: (quotes are from Roorda's article)

Otepka made up a set of five by eight inch file cards distilling the damaging "data" on each of 858 employees whose files, Otepka decided, contained some dark mark. "The purpose of the study and the cards," he testified, "was to assure that no person whose record was highly questionable would occupy any critical or policy-influencing position, and also to assure that each case, according to its merits, would be subjected to periodic scrutiny and appropriate reinvestigation."

The Office of Security was so close to the SISS that some considered that it had been "captured." And the SISS played a crucial role in the dismissal of several China hands. Then the SISS turned its attention to Cuba. Its hearings began before the 1960 election and continued after the inauguration.

The controversy stoked the explosive issue of subversion in the State Department, prompting new Secretary of State Dean Rusk to be more assertive than his predecessors had been in defending the Foreign Service. Rusk realized that the Office of Security had allied with the SISS in the witch hunts that had weakened the State Department. Otepka's domination of security clearances became the first target in Rusk's effort to break the influence of the SISS.

Dean Rusk realized it was time for change. Otepka's supervisor said he was a man with "a tendency to dwell in the past ... a stickler for detail and a hewer to the letter of the law."

But Otepka considered himself to be an expert on "communism and its subversive movements in the United States," subscribing to McLeod's dictate that "if one is a security officer, you assume that the enemy has an apparatus in your organization and you try to root it out." Otepka's activities as an informant for the SISS had troubled even Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in the late 1950s.

Rusk knew that Otepka was yesterday's man. Otepka met with Rusk and Robert Kennedy in December 1960 to discuss the rejection of Walt Rostow's security clearance in 1954 and 1957. Otepka told them he would still not clear Rostow and said that "all new Kennedy appointees would be subject to exhaustive background checks by the Office of Security and the FBI." Two other appointments by Rusk were also rejected by Otepka.

Rusk then eliminated Otepka's position as Deputy Director of the Office of Security and moved him to the Division of Evaluations. He then had no authority over security clearances. Otepka then testified before the SISS and over the next five years he would offer "approximately 1,750,000 words of testimony." He told them that Rusk's move was politically motivated.

A controversy erupted over Kennedy's appointment of William Wieland, who had previously been Director of the Office of Mexican and Caribbean Affairs in the State Department, to help reorganize the Office of Security. Otepka's file on Wieland consisted of eleven volumes and he objected to Rusk's clearance of Wieland. This all hit the newspapers and there were insinuations about Wieland:

Indianapolis Star, October 18, 1962

The hearings moved from Wieland to Otepka himself. The SISS concluded that the State Department "was seeking to remove 'the last of the breed' left over from the McCarthy era." Otepka testified that the Kennedy administration was abusing the emergency waiver process for hiring. A State Department spokesperson said that Otepka "was out of step with the times. We are not witch hunting any more. We have no security risks, and he knows it."

Otepka met privately with SISS staff to supply them with information:

Otepka informed the SISS that he had compiled a list of eight hundred current State Department employees whose security files contained "seriously derogatory information." He said he considered liberals in the State Department to be "dissidents" who subverted the efforts of "fair-minded evaluators" like himself.

The State Department suspected that Otepka had given the staff of SISS classified documents and examined his "burn bag" for clues. They found "classified seals of documents that Otepka had turned over to the subcommittee." Otepka's phone was tapped and his office safe was searched.

In May 1963 Rusk transferred Otepka to a new position that did not require the use of security files. By the time Otepka testified before the SISS in August 1963, his name had been removed from the State Department directory. Later that month he was charged with releasing documents to the SISS. Rusk told the SISS that "Otepka worked for the wrong boss."

Otepka did not lose his job but he was demoted in December 1967. Richard Nixon then appointed him to the Subversive Activities Control Board but he was never confirmed by the Senate.

Much of the narrative behind the Otto Otepka segment in JFK: Destiny Betrayed comes from Henry Hurt's book, Reasonable Doubt, in which chapter nine also has the title "Fingerprints of Intelligence." Another source for this segment is Lisa Pease's article "What did Otepka Know about Oswald & the CIA?" in the March-April 1977 issue of Probe Magazine. In addition, John Newman writes about Otepka on pages 170 - 173 of Oswald and the CIA.

Here is my attempt to figure out what was going on in connection with Oswald:.

Newman claims that Richard Bissell then requested Robert Bannerman, who was Deputy Chief of the CIA's Office of Security (OS), to answer the query. He had a close working relationship with Otepka and he made a check with the State Department's Security Office (SY) to see what they had and "told his staff to support Counterintelligence Staff (CI)." Marguerite Stevens was assigned to send information to CI.

The allegation that Angleton "instructed that there be no research done on Oswald" comes from John Newman's book: (page 171 of John Newman's Oswald and the CIA)

A Stevens memo at the time shows that Bannerman verbally requested Gaynor to assemble information on American defectors. The request, as Gaynor relayed it to Stevens, however, was worded in a peculiar way, as if to dissuade her from doing research on seven people. Bannerman specified that he wanted information on American defectors "other than Bernon F. Mitchell and William H. Martin, and five other defectors regarding whom Mr. Otepka of the State Department Security Office already has information" on in his files [emphasis added]. One of the "five other defectors" that Stevens was not supposed to look into was Lee Harvey Oswald.

Bissell included details of various defectors. Here is what he sent on Lee Henry [sic] Oswald:

I can see nothing in any documentation about the issue of false defectors. I turned to Henry Hurt's book, Reasonable Doubt, He writes:

It is known that during the years in question the State Department was engaged in a study of U.S. defectors to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. One of its aims, according to Otto Otepka, the official in charge of the study, was to determine which "defectors" were genuine and which were U.S. intelligence operatives on espionage missions.

Hurt has three sources. The first is page 324 of William Gill's 1969 book, The Ordeal of Otto Otepka. Here is what Gill has to say:

Some time prior to his exile from the Office of Security Otepka started work on a study of Americans who had defected to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries.

Gill says nothing about determining which defectors were genuine. In fact, Gill notes that what would have made Otepka suspicious about Oswald was not his intelligence connections:

For example, Otepka almost certainly would have delved very deeply into the curious circumstances surrounding expeditious granting of a visa to enter the Soviet Union from Finland in October 1959. Although the State Department told the Warren Commission that in 1959 it "usually took an American tourist in Helsinki one to two weeks to obtain a visa," Oswald got his within two days after he applied.

Gill claims that Otepka's interest was in whether there was communist infiltration in the State Department, and he was also interested in whether Marina Oswald had KGB connections.

Gill elaborates on what Otepka would have investigated: (page 326)

The Otepka study would have traced Lee Harvey Oswald's background to this childhood. It would have determined who influenced him to become a fanatical Marxist. It would have unearthed early evidence of his mental instability. It would, in short, have marked Oswald as a man well worth keeping a wary eye on because all this, and more, was within the scope of the study as Otepka planned it.

That passage is not in Henry Hurt's book.

One of Hurt's other sources is Anthony Summers' book Conspiracy: (page 118 in paperback edition)

Otto Otepka, the controversial former Chief Security Officer of the State Department, said that in 1963 his office engaged in a study of American "defectors," because neither the CIA nor military agencies such as naval intelligence would reveal which were authentic and which were intelligence plants. One of the cases being studied was that of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Summer's source is Bernard Fensterwald's 1977 book, Assassination of JFK by Coincidence or Conspiracy?: (page 231)

Neither the CIA nor the military intelligence people would tell the State Department which of its "defectors" were genuine and which were U.S. agents.

His source for that is an interview with Otto Otepka in the summer of 1971. I have not been able to find that interview and so it is impossible to evaluate exactly what Otepka said. But all the sources about the Otepka's study looking into false defectors derive from that interview. There is no documentation to support the allegation.

Jim Hougan, author of the 1978 book Spooks: The Haunting of America, claims that Otepka's interest was whether defectors were authentic: (page 371)

According to Otepka, the study on defectors was initiated by him because neither the CIA nor military intelligence agencies would inform the State Department which defections to the Soviet Union were double agents working for the United States.

I see no other documentary evidence to support the claim that, at the time, Otepka was looking into false defectors.

Hougan interviewed Otepka in 1977: (page 371)

Asked whether Oswald was "one of ours or one of theirs," Otepka recently grouched, "We had not made up our minds when my safe was drilled and we were thrown out of the office."

One of theirs? Otepka's speciality was looking for communist agents. Might he have been interested in whether any of the defectors returning back were agents?

In 1978, Otepka was interviewed by the HSCA:

Note that Otepka says "he presently feels that favorable treatment which Oswald received from the U.S. government was peculiar and he is not sure whether Oswald was a genuine political defector."

The first part of that sentence is very consistent with his suspicions on communist penetration amongst State Department diplomats. The second part sounds like he's been talking to too many JFK conspiracy theorists.

What did Otepka really think? The best source might be Peter Dale Scott who interviewed Otepka in 1978. Here is an excerpt from his book, Dallas '63:

I interviewed Otto Otepka at length in 1978; he impressed me as a sincere anti-communist who from his vantage point had rightly concluded that there was far more to the Oswald case than met the eye. He observed, for example, that State Department procedures had been violated when Oswald, a former defector, received a new passport on June 25, 1963, one day after applying for it. (Just two days later, on June 27, Otepka was permanently separated from his office and his defector file.) Otepka also found suspicious Oswald's receipt of a Soviet visa in just two days, when the normal waiting period was one to two weeks.

Scott elaborated in his book, Oswald, Mexico & Deep Politics: (relevant page is here)

Otepka's frustration in pursuing the Oswald matter, which he shared with me fifteen years ago, are instructive. As a right-winger who shared Angleton's profound mistrust of the Soviet Union, he feared that Oswald's defection had something to do with the KGB. He found it anomalous that Oswald received a visa to enter the Soviet Union from Finland in only two days (rather than the one-to-two weeks it normally took); and also that the USSR granted Oswald an exit visa a month and a half early. Above all, as a security officer who had spent a lifetime studying State Department procedures, he claimed to know for a certainty that Oswald in 1963 had been granted a passport when he should not have. His efforts to learn why were resisted by his own superiors at State, which compounded his suspicions of a subversive conspiracy. Otepka was not alone in his suspicions.

JFK: Destiny Betrayed misleads viewers about Otto Otepka. His whole career was built on finding communist subversion and his suspicions about Oswald were driven by his anti-communism. There is no evidence to support the allegation that Otepka believed Oswald was a fake defector.

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