for the Central Intelligence Agency faced pointed questions in a federal
court hearing Monday morning about the agency's efforts to block disclosure
of long-secret records about the assassination of President John F.
Three appellate judges probed for explanations of the agency's rationalefor
withholding records concerning a deceased undercover CIA officernamed
George Joannides whose role in the events of 1963 remains unexplained.
For the past three and a half years, CIA has blocked the release of
theJoannides files, denying my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request
and spurning scholarly appeals for full disclosure. At stake is the
viability of the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Act, which mandates
the immediate review, and release of all government records related
to Kennedy's murder in Dallas on November 22, 1963. One of the strongest
open government measures ever enacted, the future of the JFK Act is
now in question as the CIA seeks judicial permission to defy its provisions.
The three-judge panel, chaired by Judge Karen Henderson, heard oral
arguments in the federal courthouse here about whether the FOIA requires
release of the records, most of which are more than 40 years old.
These records were never shared with any JFK assassination investigation.
"Do you know where the records are located?" Henderson asked
CIA lawyer John Truong in reference to a series of monthly reports
that the Joannides was supposed to file in 1963. Truong said he did
not know. Judge David Tatel questioned Truong's contention that Joannides
was not the subject of congressional investigation in the late 1970s.
"Aren't these key records?" asked Judge Judith Rogers.
Joannides served as the chief of psychological warfare operations
in the Agency's Miami station at the time of Kennedy's assassination.
Using the alias "Howard," he was the case officer for a
Cuban exile group whose members had repeated contact with accused
assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in August 1963 -- rendering any records
of Joannides' secret operations at that time potentially relevant
to the JFK assassination story. The JFK Records Act of 1992 was supposed
to spur full disclosure on the much-debated subject. Approved unanimously
by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, the
law sought to quell public doubt and confusion raised by Oliver Stone's
JFK. "All Government records concerning the assassination
of President John F. Kennedy should carry a presumption of immediate
disclosure," the Act declared, "and all records should be
eventually disclosed to enable the public to become fully informed
about the history surrounding the assassination."
To insure compliance, Congress created an independent civilian review
panel, the Assassination Records Review Board(ARRB) to determine what
documents would be made public and to oversee the public release those
records. The five-member board -- not federal agencies -- were given
final say over what should be declassified. Between 1994 and 1998,
the ARRB, chaired by federal judge John Tunheim, oversaw the release
of four million pages of once-secret JFK records.
These new JFK files not only illuminate the events that led to the
gunshots that took Kennedy's life; they also provide an unprecedented
glimpse of U.S. covert operations against Cuba, CIA propaganda and
surveillance techniques, U.S. law enforcement action against organized
crime figures, and efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro. The JFK Records
Act, according to the watchdog group OMB Watch, "is the best
example in existence of a successful targeted declassification effort."
The CIA, however, now appears to be evading a signed memorandum of
understanding that it gave to the ARRB about the release of JFK records.
On September 30, 1998 the Agency committed itself to releasing any
newly discovered JFK records under the criteria established by the
board. Today the Agency is ignoring the ARRB criteria and blocking
the isclosure of records that meet the legal definition of "assassination
The National Archives and Records Administration has responsibility
for maintaining the JFK Records Collection but limited ability to
compel the Agency to turn over sensitive documents. Even though the
JFK Act states that all assassination records must be made public
by 2017, a top CIA official noted in a court filing that the Agency
has the right to keep as many as 1,100 still-secret JFK records out
of public view beyond that date.
In my admittedly subjective view, the JFK Records Act is being slowly
repealed by CIA fiat. In defiance of the law and common sense, the
Agency continues to spend taxpayers' money for the suppression of
history around JFK's assassination. In the post-9/11 era, you would
think U.S. intelligence budget could be better spent.
The ARRB established George Joannides' relevance to the JFK historical
record in 1998 when it discovered and declassified five fitness reports
from his personnel file. Those records revealed for the first time
that Joannides had served as the chief of Psychological Warfare branch
in the CIA's Miami station in 1963. He arrived in Miami in 1962 under
U.S. Army cover, according to recently declassified records.
At the time of Kennedy's assassination his duties included handling
the CIA's contacts with a militant Cuban exile group called the Cuban
Student Directorate, known by its Spanish acronym, DRE. In CIA cables,
the group was known by the codename AMSPELL.
JFK scholars consider documents relating to the DRE to be relevant
to the history of events in Dallas. A series of encounters between
DRE members and Lee Harvey Oswald in August 1963 have long provoked
investigative interest and debate.
Oswald approached the DRE's delegation in New Orleans and offered
to train guerrillas to fight the Castro government. He was rebuffed.
When DRE members saw Oswald handing out pro-Castro leaflets a few
days later an altercation ensued that ended with the arrest of all
the participants. A week after that, the DRE's spokesman in New Orleans
debated the Cuba issue with Oswald on a radio program. After these
encounters, the DRE issued a press release calling for a congressional
investigation of the pro-Castro activities of the then-obscure Oswald.
The CIA was passing money to the DRE leaders at the time, according
to an agency memo dated April 1963, found in the JFK Library in Boston.
The document shows that the Agency gave the Miami-based group $250,000
a year -- the equivalent of about $1.5 million annually in 2007 dollars.
The secret CIA files on Joannides may shed new light on what, if anything,
Joannides and other CIA officers in anti-Castro operations knew about
Oswald's activities and contacts before Kennedy was killed. In a July
2003 FOIA request, I asked for all records on Joannides' contacts
with and responsibilities for the DRE in 1962-64, as well as records
on his stint as liaison to the congressional investigation in 1978.
In the course of the lawsuit, the CIA admitted the existence of 33
still-secret documents in Joannides' administrative file. The CIA
refuses to release them in any form, claiming that the release of
even a single word would harm national security or violate someone's
privacy. Those records have been "denied in full."
The CIA denies any obligation to release JFK-related documents in
the Joannides files. "The JFK Assassination Records Act has no
applicability" to a FOIA request, according to a brief filed
by the agency this summer.
The agency also asserts that its operational files are exempt from
being searched under the terms of the 1984 CIA Information Act --
even though the JFK Records Act supersedes that law and contains no
exemption for the searching of operational files.
"The JFK statute is quite clear," stated Anna Nelson, a
former ARRB member and a professor at American University. "Every
agency had to search every file system for records relating to the
JFK assassination. Nothing in the statute excludes operational files.
Furthermore, the board guidelines are clear that files like the Joannides
file are a part of the assassination record. So the CIA is legally
bound to search those files and to report on what they found, even
if the documents aren't released."
In affidavits filed in support of the lawsuit, Nelson and John Tunheim,
federal judge and former ARRB chair, called on the CIA to release
the withheld documents. Former ARRB general counsel Jeremy Gunn stated
that the Joannides' material meets the ARRB's definition of "assassination-related."
Last year, federal judge Richard Leon upheld the CIA's decision to
withhold the records. In a September 2006 decision, Leon declared
there was "not one scintilla of evidence" that the information
in Joannides' files is related to Kennedy's assassination. Attorney
Truong urged the appellate court to uphold Leon's decision, saying
the agency's record search was "reasonable and responsive."
In March 2007, twenty-two authors published an open letter in the
/New York Review of Books <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19931>/,
calling on National Archivist Allen Weinstein to take possession of
the Joannides files from the CIA, review them for genuinely sensitive
and private information, and release them to the public. Echoing similar
open letters in 2003 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16865>
and 2005 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18193>,
the JFK writers declared that Joannides' role in the assassination
story required full disclosure of his files.
The signatories included novelists Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo,
filmmaker Stone, anti-conspiratorial authors Vincent Bugliosi and
Gerald Posner and pro-conspiracy journalists Anthony Summers and David
Talbot -- an unusual display of consensus in such a hotly contested
subject. In response, Weinstein said that the Archives staff has met
with the CIA and discussed concerns related to the Joannides files
that remain at the agency. "We expect to receive a response from
the CIA in the near future," he wrote in August. Two months later,
the request is still pending. When it comes to obeying the law on
JFK records, the CIA is still considering its options.
A decision in Morley v. CIA is expected before the end of the year.