Oswald's Radio By James H. Johnston*
The reddish-brown, plastic, Russian-made, portable, "Tourist" radio of Presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was a thing of beauty when new. Now, worn and battered by wear and time, it sits alone and forlorn on a shelf at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. But its saga is symbolic of all that was – and still is – wrong with government secrecy and the many flaws in the Warren Commission investigation of the assassination.
The radio isn't mentioned in the 888-page Warren Report. The twenty-six supporting volumes devote only a two-page letter from the National Security Agency to it, saying the radio was examined for "cryptological evidence" but it "appears to be a normal receiver and there is no evidence of its use for any other purpose." Yet, according to declassified FBI documents, NSA didn't bother to test the radio.
The radio is significant because it is one way that Oswald might have received instructions from a foreign intelligence service. Oswald was good with radios. He owned a shortwave radio as a teenager and worked with radios in the Marine Corps. When he went to the Soviet Union, he was given a job at a radio factory and listened to distant Voice of America radio broadcasts. He presumably bought the Tourist in Russia and brought it with him when he moved back to the United States. The day after the assassination, reporter Hugh Aynesworth of The Dallas Morning News went to the rooming house where Oswald had been living and asked his landlords what he did at night. He "would retire early and listen to his small radio," they answered.
The radio began its journey to the National Archives immediately after Oswald's arrest on the afternoon of the assassination. Police went to the rooming house and seized everything in his room, including the radio. They gave the radio to the FBI, and then it went to NSA. NSA knew foreign intelligence agencies might use the Tourist. Its internal report says the radio was "examined and tested by R34 [whoever that was] with negative results," and it "conformed closely to one examined by the British in 1959." This seems to mean the portable radio was being used by spies. The Central Intelligence Agency calls such radios "OWL's," an acronym for "one-way-listen." None of this reached the Warren Commission.
The next time anyone looked at the radio was in 1966, two years after the Warren Report. Albert Newman, a writer and amateur radio enthusiast, theorized that Oswald might have been motivated by listening to inflammatory broadcasts from Cuba on Radio Havana. Newman took a cheap shortwave to Dallas and found that Radio Havana was the strongest signal on its frequency. A White House aide arranged for Newman to inspect the radio, which was back in the FBI's possession. An internal FBI memorandum states the Bureau "was not aware of any prior allegation that Oswald had used it [the radio] to receive broadcasts from Cuba and this would require further checking." That the FBI hadn't thought of this is damning; the reason NSA examined the radio was to see if Oswald received electronically coded messages, so the FBI should have realized he might have used the radio to receive other types of messages. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover downplayed the sinister implications in his memorandum to the White House: "The radio is a small, brown, plastic, Russian-made radio commonly known as the 'Tourist' and was designed to operate on standard radio broadcast bands. It is similar in this respect to American-made [AM] radios commonly found in the American home. When operating properly, the radio, if used in the southeastern section of the United States, would be capable of receiving radio broadcasts from Cuban radio stations, particularly at night…. For your added information, the radio was not in operating condition when it was received by the Bureau from the Dallas Police Department. No attempt was made by this Bureau to repair the radio since to have done so would have changed the physical condition of the radio from that in which it was received."
Hoover's claim that the radio was not in operating condition when the FBI got it is startling. First, why didn't NSA mention this to the Warren Commission, and why did it imply that it had tested the radio? And second, why didn't the FBI test the radio? After all, Newman alleged it played a role in the murder of the President.
Thus, Oswald's radio was examined three times: once by NSA; once by the FBI; and once by Albert Newman. If Hoover's 1966 letter is right, the radio wasn't working on any of these occasions. And yet, Oswald's landlords told reporter Aynesworth that he listened to the radio, so it was working when he had it. When was it disabled, and who did that?
The question of what Oswald listened to also remains. Could he pick up high-power AM broadcasts from Cuba, 1,000 miles away? Or, was the radio modified for shortwave signals, which carry farther? Was Oswald incited by inflammatory broadcasts from Cuba, or was he using the radio to get a "go-signal" on shortwave from a foreign intelligence service to kill the President?
I was on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which, in 1976, uncovered other failures of the intelligence agencies in investigating the assassination. I became interested in Oswald's radio only recently while researching a book. A radio engineer told me Oswald would have difficulty picking up Cuba stations unless he attached an external antenna to the radio, but there is no evidence he did. On the other hand, amateur radio operators in Dallas told me they pick up Cuban stations. Everyone agreed that if Oswald's radio were shortwave, as Newman believed, it could certainly pick up Cuba, but it would have to be modified.
To determine if the radio had been modified, I asked NSA for a copy of its internal report. NSA can't find it. Therefore, I asked the National Archives to photograph the radio from various angles, inside and out, and furnish me the photographs.
The photographs proved a surprise. When I compared them with photographs of a standard Tourist radio, I saw immediately that Oswald's radio was different. An internal antenna was broken and the case dented. Also, a copper coil on the antenna had been moved. And yet it worked for Oswald. The intelligence agencies didn't seem to notice the damage and changes.
I crowd-sourced the photographs, circulating them to the amateur radio group and asking if the radio had been modified to pick up shortwave. The group responded quickly: the only way to know is to put the radio on a test bench. According to the documentary record, no one ever has.
The radio's saga is but one example of how important facts related to the assassination still lie under the pall of Cold War secrecy and a bureaucracy that seems bent on protecting the intelligence agencies' reputations more than on national security. Indeed, the formerly-secret material that has been released shows a surprisingly poor investigation. The CIA recently declassified a secret article written in 2013 by its own historian who called the CIA's investigation of the assassination "passive, reactive and selective." The sloppy work on the radio reveals an investigation by other intelligence agencies that was even worse.
*The author is a lawyer and writer in Washington DC. He investigated and reported on the Kennedy assassination for the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1976 and is writing a book on the assassination.