It has been six weeks since the D.C. Court of Appeals heard arguments in Morley v. CIA, my lawsuit seeking certain CIA records from 1963 related to the assassination of President Kennedy. A decision from Judges Harry Edwards, Stephen Williams, and Brett Kavanagh could come any day now.
The legal issue before the judges is money, not documents. The larger issue raised by the case is the CIA’s credibility on JFK’s assassination.
The court will decide if the CIA has to pay my court costs, estimated at $150,000, given the fact that D.C. Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in my favor in December 2007. If the government loses in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case, the courts usually (but not always) require the government to pay the plaintiff’s court costs.
Filed in Washington federal court in 2003, Morley v. CIA seeks to answer an empirical question: Was undercover CIA officer George Joannides running a COINTELPRO-style “psychological warfare” operation that targeted Lee Harvey Oswald in the summer of 1963 for the purpose of discrediting the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a leftist group that supported the government of Fidel Castro?
For a decade the CIA’s response has been evasive.
The CIA spokesmen do not say words to the effect of “Morley’s inquiry is absurd. Our former employee, Joannides, knew nothing of Oswald in the months before the president was killed.”
If the President Kennedy was truly killed by the pathological yet pathetic loner named Oswald, as many well-informed people believe, you might think such a categorical response would be in order, if only to dispel unwarranted speculation.
The CIA’s position, as sworn to by Michelle Meeks, the agency’s Information Coordinator, is much more limited. On the most important records at issue in Morley v. CIA, Meeks invoked what is called a “Glomar” response: the CIA “will neither confirm nor deny” Joannides’s secret actions in 1963-64 when he ran anti-Castro psychological warfare operations in Miami and New Orleans.
The agency’s hedging undermines the confident pronouncements of pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews who embrace the official story of a lone nut. The extraordinary secrecy that still shrouds Joannides’s action in 1963 means that we actually do not know if certain undercover CIA officers who opposed Kennedy’s Cuba policy manipulated Oswald before President Kennedy’s death.
Among the questions that the Glomar defense enables the CIA to avoid is: Did Joannides have contact with Oswald in the summer of 1963? Was he Oswald’s “handler”? Did he coach Warren Commission witnesses in 1964?
The answers are: probably not; it is possible; and maybe. The CIA, O’Reilly, Maddow, and Co. certainly have no factual basis for saying he did not do any of these things.
The available FBI and CIA records show that the two agencies targeted the FPCC with COINTELPRO-style operations in 1963. They show that Joannides, using the alias “Howard,” ran covert operations designed to make the Castro government look bad. They confirm that he funded, guided and monitored a student exile group that publicized Oswald’s pro-Castro ways in August 1963 and on November 22, 1963, the day JFK was killed — reports that made the Castro government look bad. Joannides was credited with having control over the group. And thanks to two travel documents uncovered by Morley v. CIA, we know that Joannides’s CIA assignments took him to New Orleans, where Oswald lived and where the Warren Commission investigated.
The question of whether Joannides handled Oswald or obstructed the Warren Commission investigators cannot be definitively answered because the bulk of CIA records about his covert activities in 1963 is classified. The CIA has acknowledged in court filings that it retains at least 295 documents about Joannides (including more records about his travel to New Orleans) that neither the public nor any JFK assassination investigators have ever seen.
We also know, thanks to photos uncovered by Morley v. CIA, that Joannides won a medal, in part for his actions in 1963-64. The medal was presented by deputy CIA director Bobby Ray Inman, now a professor at the University of Texas.
As I wait with some trepidation for the appellate court’s judgment, I console myself with the fact that Morley v. CIA has answered a question that goes to the heart of the debate about the casuses of President Kennedy’s death.
Q. Was Lee Harvey Oswald manipulated by George Joannides and his superiors at the CIA before President Kennedy was killed?
A: The CIA does not deny it.
The lawsuit has illuminated how carefully the CIA responds to questions about JFK’s death in 2013. The Obama Justice Department argued that Morley v. CIA has uncovered no information that benefits the public. But Information Coordinator Meeks and other CIA officials are careful not to commit themselves to statements that could be refuted by the release of the Joannides files.
On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder, that’s noteworthy and newsworthy.