A Justice Department official denied in a federal court filing last month that undercover officer George Joannides received a CIA medal for deceptive actions related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 49 years ago but the claim cannot be verified.
“The CIA has consistently challenged the notion that a career award could be seen as explicit or tacit approval of any one assignment in Joannides’s 30-year career,” asserted Ronald Machen, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, in a brief filed on Nov. 21 in the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Machen’s brief is the government’s latest legal salvo in my decade-old (today) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit over JFK assassination records. At issue are ancient but still-sensitive U.S. government documents related to the murder of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
In recent years, the CIA has grudgingly acknowledged that Joannides served as the Miami-based handler of a Cuban exile group whose members who had a series of encounters with accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald three months before JFK was killed.
The agency also acknowledges that Joannides served as the CIA’s principal coordinator with the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in 1978 but did not disclose his role in the events of 1963 to investigators.
“That concealment has fueled suspicion that Mr. Joannides’s real assignment was to limit what the House committee could learn about C.I.A. activities,” wrote reporter Scott Shane of the New York Times in 2009.
Documents and photos released under a 2007 court order showed that Joannides received one of the agency’s highest honors, the Career Intelligence Medal in July 1981, less than three years after he stonewalled the congressional investigators.
According to the agency’s Web site, the Career Intelligence medal is given to officers with a
cumulative record of service reflecting a pattern of increasing levels of responsibility or increasingly strategic impact and with distinctly exceptional achievements that constitute a major contribution to the mission of the Agency.
The CIA is refusing to pay approximately $150,000 in legal fees associated with my FOIA lawsuit. Supported by the Obama Justice Department, the agency insists that Joannides’ medal was not related to JFK’s assassination. The disclosure of the medal as a result of FOIA litigation does not “meaningfully” contribute “to the fund of information that citizens may use in making vital political choices,” Machen said.
The CIA declines to specify why Joannides was honored.
One of the documents in dispute in the lawsuit is a five-page memo, dated March 1981, that recounts why Joannides received the medal. Through ten years of litigation, the CIA has insisted the memo must be kept secret in its entirety “in the interest of national defense and foreign policy.” (See “Vaughn Index” document below.)
The 1981 medal citation, declassified by the court order, makes no mention of JFK’s assassination. It states only that Joannides was honored for
diverse assignments of responsibility at Headquarters, the domestic field, and overseas. His linguistic skills, area knowledge, expertise in a specialized operational activity and superb managerial techniques truly earned him the respect and admiration of superiors and colleagues.
The citation’s language does not rule out the possibility that Joannides was honored for his concealment of actions related to JFK’s assassination.
Joannides’ two-year stint in the CIA’s Miami station in 1962-64 is his only assignment in “the domestic field” that the CIA has acknowledged.
As the chief of the station’s psychological warfare operations, Joannides was responsible for secret activities to confuse and confound the Castro government. According to CIA records, he was also paying $51,000 a month to the Cuban Student Directorate, an anti-Castro organization whose members publicized Oswald’ pro-Castro activities both before and after JFK was killed.
One of Joannides’s most important Headquarters assignments was his liasion work the HSCA in 1978. HIs failure to disclose the CIA’s financial support for the first group to identify Kennedy’s accused killer as a Castro supporter disturbed G. Robert Blakey, a former federal prosecutor who served as HSCA general counsel.
“[Joannides’s] behavior was criminal,” Blakey, now a law professor at Notre Dame, told Salon in 2003. “He obstructed our investigation.”
Inside the CIA, however, Joannides won high marks for his no-disclosure stance toward the congressional investigators. He was, wrote one of his superiors in an annual job evaluation, “the perfect man for the job.”
With the CIA now disavowing that the medal conveys explicit or tacit approval of Joannides’ actions in 1963 and 1978, Machen argued in his Nov. 21 brief that my attorney James Lesar had failed demonstrate that Joannides’s medal
could be tied to the [JFK] assassination and thereby reflect sufficient value to the public to weigh in favor of an award of attorney’s fees. Consequently, it cannot be said that Morley’s ‘success’ in procuring any of these documents from CIA is likely to ‘add’ meaningfully to the fund of information that citizens may use in making vital political choices.
Certainly, Joannides’s actions as they related to JFK’s assassination remains shrouded in official secrecy. Virtually all information about Joannides and his psychological warfare operations in 1963 remains top-secret, even a half century after the fact. The agency has acknowledged possessing 295 records about Joannides’s career that it says cannot be released in any form. At least a third of the documents are more than 50 years old.
The question remains whether Joannides’s “distinctly exceptional achievements” included concealment of information about JFK’s assassination. The top law enforcement officer in the District of Columbia asserts there is no evidence of that but the CIA is withholding the records that could confirm (or refute) his claim.
Absent full disclosure, I will continue to litigate. Lesar will file a response to Machen’s motion in the D.C. Appeals Court on Monday, December 17. Oral arguments are scheduled for February 25, 2013.
“Denied in Full:” In this document filed in federal court in Washington, the CIA explains why it will not release any information about Joannides’ Career Intelligence medal.