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FBI special agent in the cross-hairs over Lee Harvey Oswald




28-8-1924 10-6-2011


SPECIAL Agent James Hosty twice went looking for Lee Harvey Oswald in early November 1963, without any luck, after his supervisor handed him the file on the suspected communist agitator and possible spy.

The two men eventually met for the first time on November 22. Oswald was being held at Dallas police headquarters, charged with the assassination of President John Kennedy and the killing of a Dallas police officer.

As Hosty started taking notes while the police interrogated Oswald, he was beginning the half of his life that would remain painfully entangled in the mystery and national trauma of the Kennedy assassination.

Hosty, who has died of prostate cancer in Kansas City, Missouri, aged 86, always regretted not having found Oswald before the assassination. But he insisted it would not have made a difference.

Oswald had been on the FBI's radar since returning to the US in 1962 with his Russian wife, Marina, after an unsuccessful effort to settle in the Soviet Union. He had been interviewed by other FBI agents and described in their reports as an avowed communist, a potential spy and a heavy drinker, but never as a potential assassin.

When asked by a congressional committee years later why he did not alert the Secret Service to Oswald before the president's visit, Hosty replied: "The only thing that we could tell the Secret Service was a direct threat to the president. He made no direct threat to the president. Therefore we could not tell them."

In fact, it was Hosty's contacts with Oswald, rather than the lack of them, that came to haunt him. In 1964, answering questions before the Warren Commission, Hosty admitted having received a letter from Oswald in the weeks before the assassination and destroying it on November 24 the day Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby. Hosty said the letter included Oswald's sharp protest over his questioning of Oswald's wife when the agent made two visits to their home while Oswald was out. Hosty testified that he destroyed the letter on orders from his supervisor, Gordon Shanklin. (Shanklin denied giving such an order.)

Hosty also figured in a deception involving Oswald's address book. His name and phone number appeared in the book, but FBI agents in Washington, taking inventory of the contents of it for the Warren Commission, left his name out. (Commission lawyers later obtained the address book and discovered the omission.)

Both incidents made Hosty a lightning rod for suspicion about the credibility of the FBI in the aftermath of the assassination, raising questions for some about what the agency knew and would not tell. For others, the incidents suggested darker possibilities.

Oliver Stone's 1991 movie, JFK, has a fictionalised version of him at the centre of a conspiracy of government operatives who kill the president and set up Oswald an FBI informant in the film to take the fall.

In his 1995 memoir, Assignment: Oswald, Hosty acknowledges mistakes but contends that FBI officials made bigger errors first by trying to eliminate evidence that might make it seem as though the agency had any hint of Oswald's plans, and then by letting commission investigators portray Hosty as a bumbler when the evidence emerged about his contact with Oswald before the assassination.

In his testimony before the Warren Commission in 1964, Hosty said he spent the morning of November 22, 1963, in meetings unrelated to Oswald. He said he went outside to watch the president's motorcade go by and then crossed the street to get lunch. While he was eating, a waitress told him what she had just heard on the radio. He said he immediately returned to his office and found out two hours later that the Dallas police had arrested a suspect and identified him as Lee Harvey Oswald.

"What was your reaction?" the commission investigator asked. "Shock," Hosty said.

Hosty was among 12 agents reprimanded for various investigative improprieties after the release of the Warren Commission's report, but he continued to serve until his mandatory retirement at age 55, in 1979.

Born in Chicago, one of seven children of Charlotte and James Hosty snr, an executive in a sugar company, he served in World War II and later graduated from Notre Dame University. He joined the FBI in 1952.

He and his wife, Janet, who died in 1999, had nine children, seven of whom survive, along with 22 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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