When I sued the CIA for certain JFK assassination files in December 2003, I knew any litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was sure to take a long time.
It sure has.
When I walked into courtroom 31 in the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington DC on the Monday morning March 19, 2018, Morley v. CIA was well into its fifteenth year.
It was humbling and amazing to sit in that cavernous room, with an oil painting of Ruth Bader Ginsburg beaming down on me. The odds were against me, I knew that. Against a half dozen government lawyers, all of them making six-figure salaries, I had a pro bono attorney, Jim Lesar. A specialist in FOIA law, Lesar had merely bested these natty barristers three straight times in the D.C. Court of Appeals. That’s why the case was in its fifteen year–because we just keep winning in the second highest court in the land.
I was buoyed by the thought that three judges would be listening to what I had to say about JFK’s assassination. That was the amazing part. I was on equal footing with the CIA, if only for an hour.
I had little doubt my case was strong. Morley v. CIA has yielded findings of interest to editorially diverse publications including the New York Times, Fox News, Boston Globe, Politico, Daily Mail, and the Associated Press. Several online news sites had published photographs that the CIA had only coughed up as a result of Morley v. CIA.
Yet the government–my government!–was there to denounce, dismiss, and denigrate me. These words are not too strong. In the Justice Department’s briefs, attorney Benton Peterson had argued that there was literally no “public benefit” to what my lawsuit had revealed. District Court Judge Richard Leon was only slightly less parsimonious. He allowed the benefit of the lawsuit’s disclosures was “small.”
If some of the government’s finest legal minds were right, I had been wasting the court’s time–and the public’s money–for a decade with a frivolous lawsuit. When I saw the passel of Justice Department and CIA types gathered in the waiting room, I realized dismally that my tax dollars had helped pay them to gather for the purposes of impugning my professional reputation.
My only consolation was the facts, the truth forged in fifteen years of adversarial litigation. The briefs, motions, affidavits and exhibits had led to a series of court decisions which forced the CIA to release records it wanted to keep secret.
The lawsuit exposed the existence of a small body of previously unknown U.S. government files related to the assassination of JFK. These records are found in the files of a deceased CIA psychological warfare officer named George Joannides.
In the course of the litigation, I had learned how desperately the U.S. government wants to keep these records secret–from me and you and Donald Trump and everybody else whom the CIA derides (in this 1967 memo) as “conspiracy theorists.”
My hope was my trust in the three judges hearing the case—also paid by me. They were there to listen to Lesar’s argument that we had found something of enduring public interest, even importance. The CIA had been trying to get rid of us for a decade, and they still hadn’t succeeded. The odds were against me, but I liked my chances.
The clerk called “Oye oye.” The courtroom rose. The judges entered. The hearing began.
In the days to come, I will write and post about what transpired in Courtroom 31. Stay tuned.