Lawyers 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. Kennedy.
Three appellate judges probed for explanations of the agency's rationale for withholding records concerning a deceased undercover CIA officer named 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 the Joannides 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 disclosure of records that meet the legal definition of "assassination related" records.
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, 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 and 2005, 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.