CIA spying on Congress: ‘Undercover’ officer duped House JFK investigators in ’78

The scandal started quietly last week when Sen. Mark Udall wrote a letter to President Obama, alleging that the CIA had taken “unprecedented action” against investigators who wrote the Senate Intelligence Committee’s still-classified report on the U.S. torture program.

Then McClatchy News reported that the CIA monitored a Senate computer system after staffers allegedly removed records from agency’s headquarters without authorization.

When Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein went public with more of the details on Tuesday the story mushroomed into a quasi-constitutional confrontation.

Sen. Feinstein to CIA: back off

“Independent observers were unaware of a precedent for the CIA spying on the congressional committees established in the 1970s to check abuses by the intelligence agencies,” said the Guardian.

In fact, there is a precedent. While electronic surveillance may be new, the CIA has used its espionage techniques to thwart Hill scrutiny before. In 1978, the CIA went so far as to plant a spy in Congress’ inquiry into the murder of a sitting president.

The proof emerged in 2010 when a top CIA official stated in a sworn affidavit that the agency planted an “undercover” officer  into the House of Representatives investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The House investigators came away feeling much like the Senate Intelligence Committee does today: deceived and manipulated. Then as now, it seems the threat of exposure and embarrassment on a sensational issue of the day — be it torture or assassination — prompted senior CIA officials to subvert Congress’s efforts to hold the agency accountable for its actions.

Now Washington is asking why agency officials thought they had the right to spy on a congressional investigation. The answer is that history has shown they can get away with it.

Undercover lawyer

Just as the National Security Agency feels under siege today, so the Central Intelligence Agency felt in the mid-1970s. A string of revelations coming out of the Watergate scandal showed senior agency officials had supported the Watergate burglars as well as engaged in assassination of foreign leaders, torture, and mind-control experiments. Particularly appalling to the public and the Congress was the revelation that senior CIA officials had been plotting to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro at the very moment JFK was gunned down in Dallas.

In 1978, the House of Representatives reopened the investigation of Kennedy’s assassination. Soon investigators from the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) were aggressively asking for specific records held in CIA files.

Joannides medal

Retired CIA officer George Joannides (left) received the Career Intelligence Medal in 1981, two years after misleading House investigators about what he knew about Lee Oswald. (Photo credit: CIA)

In response, the CIA General Counsel Office assigned George Joannides, a dapper lawyer from New York City who had spent 28 years in the clandestine service, to serve as liaison to the investigators. Unbeknownst to Congress, Joannides “served undercover” when acting as the agency’s representative to the HSCA, according to a sworn affidavit (p. 10) from Information Coordinator Delores Nelson, filed in Washington federal court in 2010.

Joannides was, in essence, a spy. To the Congress, he presented himself as a staff attorney who would facilitate the investigation by retrieving documents and arranging interviews with former CIA personnel.

In fact, Joannides was a former undercover operations officer who had run Cuban agents in 1963 while living in Miami and New Orleans. Indeed, he had a connection to the JFK story. Some of his agents had taken an interest in accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the summer of 1963.

The CIA never told Congress about Joannides’s role in the events of 1963.

‘Perfect man for the job’

When the agency’s deception was revealed in 2003, G. Robert Blakey, the former organized crime prosecutor who served as General Counsel for the HSCA, repudiated the CIA as a trustworthy partner in government.

Blakey told PBS Frontline:

Blakey

G. Robert Blakey: Tricked by CIA

“That the Agency would put a ‘material witness’ in as a ‘filter’ between the committee and its quests for documents was a flat out breach of the understanding the committee had with the Agency that it would co-operate with the investigation.”

Blakey said the impact of the CIA’s actions on Congress’s ability to get at the truth was profound.

“I no longer believe that we were able to conduct an appropriate investigation of the Agency and its relationship to Oswald,” he said. “Anything that the Agency told us that incriminated, in some fashion, the Agency may well be reliable as far as it goes, but the truth could well be that it materially understates the matter.”

Now retired from teaching law, Blakey told me in a phone call that the latest allegations about CIA spying on Senate staffers “give a whole new dimension to what they were doing with Joannides and our investigation. Were they [the CIA] in our computers too? ”

By contrast, the CIA was pleased with the outcome. When Joannides retired in 1979, his boss lauded him as the “perfect man for the job” who deflected the “aggressive harassment” of House investigators. Two years later, Joannides received a CIA medal for career performance. He died in 1990, having never been questioned by JFK investigators.

The issue in 2014

Good luck to investigators trying to figure out how and why the CIA targeted the Congress .

When the Assassination Records Review Board, an independent civilian panel, started asking questions about Joannides, the agency responded with “inaccurate representations,” according to ARRB chair, John Tunheim, a federal judge in Minnesota.

Via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, I have learned that the many records related to Joannides’s  undercover mission against the HSCA 35 years ago remain classified to this day. Unless Congress responds more effectively, the records of the Agency’s actions against the Senate Intelligence Committee may stay secret until 2049.

The JFK assassination story is old news but the issued posed by the CIA spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee is not. What is Congress to do if it cannot count on the CIA to act in good faith when it seeks to hold the agency accountable?

Defenders of the CIA are saying that the Senate investigators did not act in good faith when they removed documents from CIA headquarters without authorization. So Langley will pose its own question: What is the CIA to do if it cannot trust Congress to keep the secrets that is the Agency’s duty to keep?

No matter how you answer those questions, though, the CIA’s actions in regard to the Senate Intelligence Committee are not ‘unprecedented.’ They are all too familiar.

 

 

 

 

22 comments

  1. Jonathan says:

    What were Harr Reid and Dianne Feinstein thinking when they had the CIA install the senate computer network?

    Answer: These guys might screw us over, but we hold the political trump cards. Meaning CYA cards. Welcome to D.C.

    Brennan is a typical DCI. Dissembling; good with the press; good at counter-punching with a velvet glove.

    Who here is amazed at the CIA’s recent behavior? Pat Speer recently posited “crickets, crickets.” Right on.

  2. Brian H. says:

    Is anyone who has researched the JFK assassination surprised by this story? And better yet James Brennan immediately denied it BUT! Hasn’t he been caught lying to congress in the past hmmm?

  3. PKM says:

    This is a fascinating historical string of associations between the HSCA, Prof. Blakey, Joannides, the AARB and today’s events involving the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Will the current controversy provide the tipping point? While optimism is unwarranted, there is an element of sympathy for her staffers evinced in Sen. Feinstein’s remarks (about 35 minutes into her senate speech) that is reminiscent of Joseph Welch’s epochal remark to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” Feinstein appears genuinely distressed that her staffers should become the targets of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department at the instigation of Robert Eatinger. Eatinger has been identified in the press as the person referred to by Feinstein as mentioned “over 1,600 times” in the Senate report. Eatinger was reportedly one of the attorneys who offered an opinion on the destruction of the video tapes showing “enhanced interrogation.”

    According to a Washington Post article dated January 25, 2009:
    “Former CIA clandestine branch chief Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who ordered the destruction of the tapes, has said through his attorney that he based his decision on legal advice from agency lawyers. The lawyers, Steven Hermes and Robert Eatinger, did not endorse the tapes’ destruction but rather concluded there was “no legal impediment” to disposing of them, according to sources briefed on their advice.”
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/24/AR2009012401856.html

    A December 10, 2007 article in the NY Times referred to the status Mr. Rodriguez enjoyed with the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic chairman at that time.
    “At a conference in El Paso in mid-August, Representative Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, heaped praise on a man whose exploits, he joked, had been the inspiration for the television show “24.”
    From fast cars to fine wines, Mr. Reyes said, the appetites of the man, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., are the stuff of legend. Then turning serious, Mr. Reyes hailed Mr. Rodriguez’s three decades of undercover work for the Central Intelligence Agency, where he recently stepped down as head of its clandestine service, and called Mr. Rodriguez an “American hero.”
    Four months later, Mr. Rodriguez’s role in the destruction of hundreds of hours of videotape of harsh interrogations of two operatives of Al Qaeda is at the center of an inquiry by Mr. Reyes’s committee on Capitol Hill….
    In 1997 [Rodriguez] was removed from his position after he interceded on behalf of a friend who was arrested in the Dominican Republic, trying to get the Dominican government to drop the [drug] charges. A report by the C.I.A.’s inspector general criticized Mr. Rodriguez for a “remarkable lack of judgment.”
    Despite the reprimand, Mr. Rodriguez continued to ascend through the agency. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was appointed chief of staff of the Counter-terrorist Center….”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/10/washington/10intel.html?_r=3&ref=washington&oref=slogin&oref=slogin&

    One is tempted to wonder whether Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Joannides were acquainted.

  4. leslie sharp says:

    This is undoubtedly a significant episode in the evolving and insidious nature of the intelligence/security apparatus run amok under the guise of American democracy.

    The question is .. where is the sense of urgency in reporting these developments? If I were an immigrant reading this particular piece I would probably say to myself … “oh, business as usual … this is how Washington operates, tell me something new.”

    I’m not suggesting that anyone should yell fire in a crowded theater, but I do think journalists with integrity could kick up their game and begin to incite a bit of outrage.

  5. Ronnie Wayne says:

    Who is to answer? They are part of the executive branch. But they have been known to operate without executive authorization. They keep us all safe from sinister forces. They keep us in the darkness of ignorance for our own protection. A perplexing situation over which “we” seem to have little influence.

    • Clarence Carlson says:

      Thanks for posting this link, it says it better than I ever could.
      At the end of the day we will find that the CIA spent millions of dollars in a far reaching interrogation-by-torture program that did not actually produce significant intelligence. It did, however, serve as a recruiting device for terrorists and demonstrated that Gestapo tactics are the American way. We as a nation are not better off for it.

      • Photon says:

        You will never know how successful the interrogation techniques were, nor how many American lives were saved by the information obtained.There is little evidence that most terrorist recruits have even heard of Gitmo, let alone be influenced by interrogation techniques that would be considered benign in most of their home countries.

        • Dave says:

          So you’re an apologist for US government-sponsored torture, then.

        • John Kirsch says:

          You wrote, in part, “You will never know how successful the interrogation techniques were, nor how many American lives were saved by the information obtained.”
          What are the facts upon which you make your flat assertions, ie, that “”You will never know how successful the interrogation techniques were, nor how many American lives were saved by the information obtained.”
          You also wrote, “There is little evidence that most terrorist recruits have even heard of Gitmo, let alone be influenced by interrogation techniques that would be considered benign in most of their home countries.”
          Again, what is the factual basis for that assertion?

        • TLR says:

          Wow. You have the nerve to come on here and be morally outraged at “conspiracy buffs,” and yet there is nothing you won’t defend if the military & intelligence agencies do it.

        • John Kirsch says:

          Photon, I see that you have still not responded to the questions I posed to you in my March 14 comment.
          You have a habit of peppering others with questions but falling silent or trying to confuse the issue when questioned yourself.

  6. GM says:

    I have just finished reading The Last Investigation by Gaeton Fonzi. I cannot say I am surprised in the least by whatever the CIA does or says. This current situation only appears to be the latest chapter in an old sorry tale.

  7. Dave says:

    One of the best posts yet; showing that, indeed, “what is past is prologue”. I highly recommend reading in detail the entire 73 page Nov. 2008 CIA affidavit for a revealing glimpse into the core of the official CIA mindset. You will be drawn into the Agency’s fascinating yet depressing mix of defensive bureaucratese and cynical reliance on various legal/statutory crutches (for example, CIA’s explanation of its “GLOMAR” response to FOIA requests). This is truly “down the rabbit hole” stuff. And yet it’s the JFK conspiracy community that is often branded as paranoid. 50 years on and release of these files is still a national security threat?
    There is a good dose of hypocrisy too, as the CIA employee swears to all the reasons why certain redactions in part (RIP) or denials in full (DIF) have to be made, while we know that the CIA has previously made precisely those kinds of “forbidden” disclosures about its employees, operations, methods, and sources. What’s the key difference here? It’s that historically meaningful disclosures by CIA have had to be compelled by the government of the day under penalty of (some new) law! And that is what now needs to happen once more, to end CIA stonewalling on its remaining classified/redacted JFK assassination documents.

  8. Fearfaxer says:

    At this point, I’m starting to think that the CIA is so determined to deflect attention from the truth about 11/22/63 because an honest investigation would reveal so much else that murdering Kennedy would turn out to be among the least of its crimes.

  9. World Peace Now says:

    Our three branches of government are completely owned and controlled by the NSA/CIA/AIPAC complex. The remedy, as suggested by JFK, Is total dismemberment of the intelligence cabals. Glenn Greenwald has the power – simply release the names and addresses of all the offenders.

  10. Obi-jonKenobi says:

    No discussion of any comments by Robert Blakey should be posted without some mention of how he came to be the Chief Council and Staff Director of the HSCA. He replaced Richard A. Sprague, a hard-nosed investigator and Philadelphia District Attorney, who refused to accept interference of the HSCA from the CIA and the FBI

    Gaeton Fonzi said of Sprague, “Sprague was known as tough, tenacious and independent. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind when I heard of Sprague’s appointment that the Kennedy assassination would finally get what it needed: a no-holds-barred, honest investigation. Which just goes to show how ignorant of the ways of Washington both Sprague and I were”.

    But, the CIA and the FBI both had many friends in high places in the press and stories began emerging of Sprague “mishandling” cases. Suddenly a man with a sterling record as a prosecutor had a “checkered past” and was not to be trusted.

    Republican allies of the intelligence community railed about the money requested by Sprague ($6.5 million) and characterized the HSCA as a “multimillion-dollar fishing expedition for the benefit of a bunch of publicity seekers.” Probably the most important criticism came from Eldon J. Rudd of Arizona, a former FBI agent who had worked on the assassination investigation, declared the Committee had “already fanned the flames of rumour, distortion and unwanted distrust of law inforcement agencies.” One of the casualties of this campaign was Sprague. He was replaced by Blakey who seemed to believe he could somehow finesse the CIA and FBI interference.

    Sprague later told Gaeton Fonzi that the real reason he was removed as chief counsel was because he insisted on asking questions about the CIA operations in Mexico. Fonzi argued that “Sprague… wanted complete information about the CIA’s operation in Mexico City and total access to all its employees who may have had anything to do with the photographs, tape recordings and transcripts. The Agency balked. Sprague pushed harder. Finally the Agency agreed that Sprague could have access to the information if he agreed to sign a CIA Secrecy Agreement. Sprague refused…. “How,” he asked, “can I possible sign an agreement with an agency I’m supposed to be investigating?”
    (Much of this is taken from this website: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/JFKsprague.htm)

    Robert Blakey now wants to act surprised and insulted by the “betrayal” by the CIA and the FBI? The citizens of the U.S. are the ones that were betrayed . . . by the incompetence and naiveté of Blakey.

    • Photon says:

      Henry Gonzalez got rid of Sprague .

      • Obi-jonKenobi says:

        Uh, so what’s your point?

        My point is that a whisper-campaign was launched that came from our intelligence community that resulted in Sprague’s reputation being smeared. Gonzalez would never have acted without that.

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