From the Desk of James H. Johnston: Remembering Moses Aleman

James H. Johnston is a lawyer, writer, and historian in Washington, DC. His latest book is Murder, Inc.: The CIA under John F. Kenney (Potomac Books, 2019).

Moses “Moe” Aleman passed away on Friday, November 27, 2020, from complications of COVID-19. Moe took the photograph of John F. Kennedy that is on the cover of my book, Murder, Inc. Moe was an FBI agent in the Tampa field office when Kennedy visited the city on November 18, 1963, four days before he was assassinated in Dallas. Agents from the FBI’s Tampa office were assigned to assist the Secret Service in providing security for Kennedy’s speech at the baseball stadium, Al Lopez Field. They were told to bring their cameras and film and take pictures of any Ku Klux Klan or anti-Castro demonstrators. When none showed up, Moe trained his camera on the President as he went by in a limousine. Moe said it was the same car in which Kennedy was killed and had the same driver. Moe was proud of the photograph and its historic significance. He readily gave me permission to use it on the book’s cover. It is a bit ominous though. In hindsight, Kennedy’s careless exposure to the unseen crowd seems to portend the coming tragedy.

Moses Aleman was born in Texas to immigrants from Mexico. He was proud of growing up in a bilingual environment. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and served in the Air Force where he got to know several FBI agents. They encouraged him to join the bureau. An influx of Latino immigrants, particularly those fleeing Cuba after the Castro revolution, created a need for FBI agents who could speak Spanish. Moe loved to tell the story of taking the FBI’s admission test. He was given two newspapers, one in English and the other in Spanish. The test was to translate an article from the English paper into Spanish and the Spanish paper into English. Moe was not allowed to use an English-Spanish dictionary. He was ushered into a testing room and given an hour to do the job. Moe would laugh at this point in telling the story and explain: “I was completely bilingual. I finished the test in five minutes.”

Moe later discovered that the FBI was not to his liking and left for a career in security for the Federal Aviation Administration. Yet he always remembered that day in November 1963 when he helped protect the President of the United States and took his picture. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself signed letters of commendation to Moe and other FBI agents in Tampa for their work. Perhaps Hoover felt that if they had been in the FBI’s Dallas field office, John Kennedy might have survived his trip to that city, or perhaps he wanted to deflect criticism of the FBI’s failures in Dallas.

Because Moe was such an interesting person and because his life story was so exceptional, I wanted to write more about him in Murder, Inc., but that would have been off topic. He made a small but important contribution to the theme though. A CIA source in Mexico City had told the agency that a Cuban American from Tampa had been “involved” somehow in Kennedy’s assassination along with Lee Harvey Oswald. This individual had left Tampa for Texas a few days before Kennedy was killed and then crossed the border into Mexico the night of the assassination. This raised the possibility that he was fleeing the United States. And indeed five days later, he seemed to flee again as the only passenger on a flight from Mexico City to Havana.

The CIA asked the FBI to run an investigation in Tampa on the individual. Moe got the assignment. He was never told the reason for the investigation, however. He first learned that from me. I sent him his old reports, which had been declassified and put in the National Archives collection on Kennedy’s assassination.

Moe’s work is relevant to my book because the FBI never told the Warren Commission about the Cuban American, his suspicious travel, or the allegation that he was involved in the assassination. The Warren Commission never saw Moe’s reports. These were facts that the CIA and FBI didn’t want the Warren Commission to have.

They didn’t fit with the narrative of Oswald as acting alone that the Warren Commission planned to lay out to the public. Did the two agencies act with the implicit or explicit approval of the White House? Probably. That is, in plainer terms, the episode suggests a cover up to avoid disclosing Kennedy’s own attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. He was, as President Lyndon Johnson would later say, running a “Murder, Inc. in the Caribbean.”

And this brings me to a final reason that Moses Aleman’s story was important to my narrative. He typified most of the FBI and CIA officers I encountered personally or through their reports in researching the book. They were competent and professional. They did not withhold or destroy documents, as some did, or distort disquieting information to protect careers or reputations. Moses Aleman’s did his duty in the highest traditions of government service.

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