Why are the CIA and the Justice Department bad-mouthing me?
In a federal court filing last November, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen sought to discredit my efforts to obtain CIA records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, by saying that documents I obtained via litigation were of “no public benefit” and would not help U.S. citizens make “vital public choices.”
Why, I wondered, was the top law enforcement officer in the nation’s capital so determined to dismiss my efforts to shed new light on something that happened nearly 50 years ago?
The answer will be heard on Monday, February 25, in a federal courtroom in downtown Washington, D.C.That’s when a three-judge panel of the DC Court of Appeals is scheduled to listen to oral arguments in my long-running Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for certain ancient JFK assassination records that the U.S. government wants to keep from public view during the 50th anniversary year of JFK’s death.
It is not easy to sue the CIA. In the early years of the litigation, the government lawyers were at least polite. Now Justice Department attorneys with six-figure salaries routinely disparage my motives and rubbish my lawsuit, which is modest in scope and arcane in its details. I am seeking a CIA administrative file containing 295 documents about a long-dead officer. After spending a decade resisting my request for these government records, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia is now on the record as saying that I have obtained nothing of value.
“No public benefits derived from Morley’s lawsuit,” Machen declared.
I beg to differ. Despite a decade of obfuscation, the lawsuit forced the CIA to produce some very revealing documents. Represented by veteran FOIA litigator Jim Lesar, I will tell the judges the story that the CIA and the Justice Department are so determined to descredit: the CIA honored one of its employees for concealing from Congress what he knew about the murder of a sitting American president.
This day has been a long time coming. When I sued the CIA in December 2003 for certain documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I had three goals in mind:
The first was to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain new information about the role of certain CIA officers in the events that led to JFK’s murder.
I made progress toward this goal in August 2008 when the CIA, under orders of the DC Court of Appeals, gave me a set of photographs of a CIA officer named George Joannides. The photos showed Joannides had received one of the Agency’s highest honors, the Career Intelligence Medal, in 1981.
The honor was significant because of Joannides’ recurring role in the JFK story. In the summer and fall of 1963, he was running “psychological warfare” operations against the Castro government out of Miami and New Orleans. At the same time, hIs Cuban exile agents got into a fight with a man named Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans. The CIA’s boys debated Oswald on a local radio program, and called attention to his one-man chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
After JFK was killed three months later — allegedly by Oswald — Joannides’ agents immediately publicized the accused assassin’s pro-Castro activism in an effort to convince the public that Kennedy was killed by a communist. The CIA did not disclose Joannides’ financial support for Oswald’s antagonists to the Warren Commission, which concluded Oswald acted alone.
FIfteen years later, George Joannides resurfaced in the JFK story. When Congress reopened the assassination investigation in 1978, the CIA called him out of retirement to serve as the agency’s liaison to the investigators. He was supposed to facilitate the investigation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). But he never disclosed what he knew about Oswald’s contacts with his network in 1963, even when asked direct questions. “Joannides obstructed our investigation,” said HSCA general counsel, G. Robert Blakey, now a law professor at Notre Dame.
What the CIA was forced to disclose by my lawsuit was that Joannides had received one of the agency’s highest honors, a Career Intelligence Medal, two years after he stonewalled Congress.
The medal, according to the CIA’s Web site, is given for “performance of outstanding services or for achievement of a distinctly exceptional nature in a duty or responsibility, the results of which constitute a major contribution to the mission of the Agency.”
The CIA argues that Joannides did not receive the medal specifically for his actions related to JFK’s assassination or its investigation.
A second goal of my lawsuit was to generate press coverage of new facts in the JFK assassination story. Over the years, Morley v. CIA succeeded in getting the attention of mainstream publications such as the New York Review of Books, Huffington Post, New York TImes, Denver Post, Salon, and St. Paul Legal Ledger, as well as numerous radio shows and blogs.
A third goal was more wishful. I hoped that at some point the adversarial nature of the legal process might enable me to put a substantive question about JFK’s assassination in front of a federal judge for independent review. In ten long years of litigation I have never had that opportunity.
On February 25, the D.C. Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in Morley v. CIA. The judges will have to decide the public benefit of the information I have uncovered about the late George Joannides.
The legal matter before the court on Feb. 25 is narrow: whether the government should have to pay my legal fees, estimated at $150,000, because the Court of Appeals ruled in my favor and against the government in December 2007. Typically, but not always, in FOIA cases the government pays the court costs of a successful plaintiff.
The question before the court is whether my efforts have yielded any information of “general public benefit.” In laymen’s terms, has the lawsuit generated any significant information about JFK’s assassination?
The New York Times thought so, publishing a story about the lawsuit in 2009, including a picture of Joannides getting the medal. The Denver Post ran the same story. The case was written about on blogs like FOIA Blog and Machetera. In 2009, I received the PEN/Oakland Censorship Award in 2009 for pursuing the case.
According to the U.S. Attorney, I am wasting the court’s time at the taxpayer’s expense. In his brief last fall, Machen declared, “Morley is seeking to accomplish an unspecified financial benefit for himself by shifting the costs of obtaining publicly available documents from himself to the taxpayers.”
That hurt. According to Machen, I am freeloader using a FOIA lawsuit to fob off my photocopying charges on the general public. Since the government routinely exempts professional journalists from paying copying costs in FOIA litigation, the U.S. Attorney is basically on record as saying that I don’t deserve to be treated as a professional journalist.
Yet at the same time the government seeks to discredit me as a journalist, the CIA refuses to answer some basic journalistic questions. If Joannides did not receive the Career Intelligence Medal for his actions related to JFK’s assassination, what did he receive it for?
The CIA declines to answer the question. One of the documents in dispute in this case is a 5-page memo, dated March 1981, about the approval of the award for Joannides. The memo is classified in its entirety — for reasons of “national security.”
So the story of Joannides’ medal is not trivial. If the CIA is to be believed, it is a matter of U.S. national security in 2013.
The disclosure of Joannides’ medal provides a useful clue to understanding the CIA’s role in the events that lead to JFK’s murder and its confused investigatory aftermath.
No, it is not “smoking gun” proof of a conspiracy. It is a factual piece of history that can help people make the “vital public choice” of whether to believe the CIA’s account of JFK’s assassination as we approach the 50th anniversary of that tragic event in November 2013.
The medal suggests that the CIA honored one its employees for concealing the truth from the Warren Commission and Congress about what he knew of Oswald’s contacts with anti-Castro, anti-JFK Cuban exiles. There is no evidence Joannides was a co-conspirator in JFK’s death. More likely, he was an accessory after that fact. He did not conspire to kill the president. He may have aided and abetted those who did.
If I am wrong about this (and I concede that I might be), then the public release of his files will clear the air and his name. The notion that “national security” is at stake seems exaggerated. All of the documents I seek are more than 30 years old; a third of them are more than 50 years old. One document dates back to 1944. CIA Information Coordinator Michelle Meeks says no portion of any of these ancient records — not a single sentence — can be made public in 2013, for reasons of “national security.”
It is not pleasant to have your professional reputation trashed by career government officials working for multi-billion dollar government agencies. But I am actually looking forward to the Feb. 25 hearing
The federal courts are a great equalizer. How often does one get a chance to talk back to the government, to refute its overbearing claims and question its self-interested decisions?
The hearing will illuminate the significance of the Joannides story in one of the highest courts in the land. It will shed light on what the CIA prefers to keep secret about its Cuban operations and JFK’s assassination 50 years after the fact. It will give the public a chance to hear the CIA’s extraordinary, extreme and, some would say, suspicious claims for secrecy around the events of November 1963.
Ultimately, the hearing creates the possibility of accountability. The CIA says there’s no story in Joannides’ medal. Pay no attention to it, says the U.S. Attorney. It will not benefit you it any way. I will have the opportunity to say, no, there is a story of public benefit here, a sad story about JFK’s death and its consequences, and a troubling story about secrecy in America today.
Three eminent judges will decide the issue: They are: Harry Edwards, a liberal appointed by President Carter; Stephen WIlliams, a conservative appointed by President Reagan; and Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush.