By David Adams
(Reuters) - Lee Harvey Oswald had closer ties to Cuba's intelligence agency in the months before his fatal shooting of John F. Kennedy than previously known, according to a new book by a former CIA analyst.
Furthermore, the CIA lied about its knowledge of those ties to the Warren Commission that was tasked with investigating the crime, according to Brian Latell, the CIA's national intelligence officer for Latin America from 1990 to 1994 and author of the book "Castro's Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, & the Assassination of John F. Kennedy," due out on July 9.
Cuba also hid what it knew about Oswald, writes Latell, citing a CIA wiretap of a conversation between two Cuban secret service agents he uncovered in declassified archives.
"I am now convinced that Oswald was engaged with the Cubans," Latell told Reuters.
While he is careful not to suggest Oswald killed Kennedy on instructions from Havana, Latell says the new evidence confirms a widely held belief that Oswald was motivated to kill Kennedy by a fervent desire to impress Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"I'm convinced he wanted to defect to Cuba," Latell said. "He loved Cuba and Castro, and wanted to join the revolution."
Latell's book, which is a revised edition of an earlier work on Cuban intelligence published last year, is based on new pieces to the puzzle uncovered from several sources, including the unpublished memoirs of Thomas Mann, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico at the time of the assassination, as well as an interview with a former Cuban intelligence agent and declassified government documents.
Seven weeks before Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, Oswald famously traveled to Mexico City by bus hoping to obtain a visa from the Cuban embassy there to visit Havana. Cuba denied him a visa, but the bus trip, and Oswald's known communist sympathies, have long generated suspicion of Cuban involvement in Kennedy's death, although no hard evidence has ever been found.
"What he did during most of the time he spent in the Mexican capital remains perhaps the most important unsolved mystery of the Kennedy assassination," writes Latell, who spent much of his career at the CIA working on Cuba.
U.S. officials never admitted the full extent of what they knew, fearing perhaps they would face public pressure to retaliate against Cuba if greater evidence of a Cuban link became known, Latell argues.
Mann learned shortly after Kennedy's death that Oswald had stayed at the Hotel del Comercio in Mexico City, known by the CIA to be a haven for Cuban spies in Mexico working for the DGI, Havana's national intelligence agency, closely run by Castro.
Mann learned this information at the time from the CIA station chief in Mexico, according to his memoirs, written in 1982. But when he raised it with his superiors in Washington, Mann was silenced by the State Department and told to cease his inquiries about Oswald's stay in Mexico.
Mann was furious and objected, but did as he was told. "In the week after the assassination Mann was convinced Cuba was involved. He was convinced Oswald was working for the Cubans at the hotel," Latell said.
"He started getting very aggressive and upsetting apple carts in Washington."
Mann, who died in 1999, was reposted out of Mexico barely a month after the Kennedy assassination.
During its investigation of the crime in 1964, the Warren Commission was curious about the Mexico trip. But when the commission traveled to Cuba and asked about Oswald's hotel stay, the CIA hid its knowledge about goings on at the hotel, according to Latell.
The Warren Commission later declared that it found no evidence of Cuban government involvement in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
In his research on Cuban intelligence Latell also discovered records of a CIA wiretap of a phone conversation between two DGI officials in Mexico and Havana shortly after the assassination in which they discussed the events in Dallas. One of them remarked how interesting it was that Oswald had wanted to fight for the revolution. How could they have known that, Latell asks, unless the DGI already had a file on him?
Latell suspects Cuba was aware of him as far as 1959 when Oswald first sought contact with Cuban officials at the Cuban consulate in Los Angeles.
Castro has always asserted that Oswald was totally unknown to Cuban authorities. Latell and others find that hard to believe, citing reports that after being denied a visa in Mexico, Oswald shouted, "I'm going to kill Kennedy," in the street outside the Cuban consulate.
"We thought that was incriminating of Oswald," said Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, former chief counsel to the 1977 House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, which re-examined the evidence in Kennedy's death.
Castro was asked about Oswald's shouted threat, but denied any knowledge of it.
"We found that it did happen and he lied about it," said Blakey, adding that the motive of Oswald's Mexico trip remains unclear as Latell's book does not reveal exactly what occurred in the Hotel del Comercio.
Latell also cites an interview with a former Cuban agent tasked with monitoring U.S. communications, who said that on the day of the assassination he was ordered to stop all CIA tracking efforts and redirect his antennae toward Texas.
"Castro knew Kennedy was to be fired upon," Latell says the agent told him.
U.S. officials covered up these vital clues because they were concerned about the consequences if a Cuban connection was publicized, Latell argues.
"Had it been known it could have triggered an invasion of Cuba," he said. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, "didn't want that" so soon after the missile crisis that had brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war barely a year earlier.
"They went nose to nose before and they didn't want to do it again," Latell says.
(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Arlene Getz and Leslie Adler)