[This story was published in JFK Facts on June 19, 2013.]
A federal court ruled Tuesday that my lawsuit for the records of deceased CIA officer George Joannides “serves a public benefit” and ordered a lower court judge to reconsider his decision to deny the award of legal fees.
A three-judge appellate panel declared that Judge Richard Leon had erred in his September 2012 decision that the governnrnent did not have to pay my court costs for 10 years of litigation. In 2007 the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of arguments made by my attorney, James Lesar, who contended that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) obligated the CIA to release more records about Joannides.
Plaintiffs who prevail in FOIA and civil rights cases are often awarded legal fees to discourage the government from resisting meritorious claims.
In its unanimous decision, the court cited its ruling in a recent FOIA case, Davy v. CIA (also argued by Lesar), that disclosure of records “about individuals allegedly involved in President Kennedy’s assassination serve a public benefit.”
The court’s ruling is a moral victory that awaits substantive fulfillment.
My lawsuit, Morley v. CIA, has shed new light on events the CIA has long sought to conceal: Joannides’s shadowy role in the JFK assassination story. The CIA did not disclose his actions in 1963 to the Warren Commission or to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). His story did not come to light until the Assassination Records Review Board declassified a handful of records from his personnel file in 1998, and I wrote a story about him for the Miami New Times in 2001.
At the time of JFK’s assassination, Joannides served as the chief of CIA covert operations in Miami. A career undercover officer with a specialty in “psychological warfare,” he funded a Cuban exile student group whose leaders publicized the pro-Castro activities of accused presidential assassin Lee H. Oswald three months before Oswald allegedly killed JFK. After JFK was dead, Joannides’s agents used CIA funds to link Oswald to Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
In 1978, Joannides resurfaced as the CIA’s chief liaison to the HSCA but never disclosed his knowledge of the events of 1963. “The CIA set me up,” HSCA general counsel G. Robert Blakey told the Washington Post in 2005.
The litigation has forced the agency to acknowledge previously undisclosed facts about Joannides, including that he
— served in an “undercover” capacity while funding Oswald’s antagonists among Cuban exiles in the summer of 1963.
— travelled to New Orleans twice in the spring of 1964 when the Warren Commission was taking testimony from members of the anti-Castro group he guided and monitored;
— served in an “undercover” capacity when he stonewalled congressional investigators in 1978.
— received one of the agency’s highest honors, the Career Intelligence Medal, for his “cumulative record of service reflecting a pattern of increasing levels of responsibility” and his “distinctly exceptional achievements.”
In the course of the litigation, the CIA was also forced to acknowledge that it retains at least 295 additional documents about Joannides that it has never made public in any form. In sworn court filings, Agency officials said that the release of the records — many of them more than 50 years old — would harm U.S. “national security” today.
In their ruling Judges Harry Edwards, Stephen Williams, and Brett Kavanaugh emphasized that the standard for entitlement to legal fees established by the Davy case does not “disqualify plaintiffs who obtain information that, while not arguably of immediate public interest, nevertheless enables further research ultimately of great value and interest such as the understanding of a Presidential assassination.”
The court ordered Judge Leon to revisit the question of legal fees “in a manner consistent with Davy.” But the court took no position on whether Leon should actually award the fees, now estimated at $150,000. When Leon will decide that question remains to be seen.
The U.S. government and the CIA still have not paid any price for concealing from the public a key batch of JFK assassination records that will shed light on CIA operations involving Lee Harvey Oswald while President Kennedy was still alive. Much of the story remains out of public view.
“Why I sued the CIA for JFK records” (JFK Facts, Feb. 23, 2013)
“Justice Dept. denies CIA officer was honored for JFK cover-up” (JFK Facts, Dec. 19, 2012)