December 15 is the next deadline for federal agencies to release files related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 58 years ago. What will we see? Last month, I offered some “smoking gun” possibilities in the Miami Herald. The pro-CIA Washington Decoded pooh poohs the idea that the JFK files contain anything of significance.
And that’s the JFK debate in a nutshell. There’s the people, like Harvard professor Cass Sunstein, who say, in effect, A little man killed a big man, get over it. And there’s the people, like Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan, who respond, Some big men killed a big man–and they got away with it. Who is right? This week will offer some clues.
At issue is a group of documents, identified by JFK researchers, that are known to exist and that speak to the breakdown of presidential security on November 22, 1963. If the CIA is serious about obeying the law, these documents will be declassified this week.
So far the government’s enforcement of the JFK Records Act has been disgraceful. President Biden, like Donald Trump, acquiesced in the CIA’s refusal to comply with the law, which mandated the release of all JFK files by October 2017. The Public Interest Declassification Board weighed in for maximum disclosure. So did Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and six other House members. Otherwise, the dysfunctional and distracted Congress remained on the sidelines.
Having blown two deadlines in four years, the CIA evidently does not want to comply with a law concerning the assassination of a president. The excuse offered in October–“the COVID dog ate my homework”–was insulting. Professor James Galbraith finds the CIA’s action self-incriminating. Washington Decoded insists, sight unseen, that all of the redacted information must be unrelated to JFK’s assassination. Rolling Stone sees a communist plot to defame the blameless CIA.
All theories aside, here are some factual questions to ask about Biden’s JFK release.
1) Did the Pentagon come clean on Operation Northwoods?
Northwoods was the code name for a 1963 Pentagon plan to hijack American democracy by staging a spectacular crime in the United States and arranging for the blame to fall on Cuba, thus justifying the U.S. invasion of the island that Kennedy rejected and the Joint Chiefs (and CIA) thought necessary. First disclosed in 1997, the Northwoods plans were mostly ignored by the mainstream press, perhaps because they lent credence to Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which depicted–accurately, it turns out–the pervasive anti-democratic and conspiratorial thinking in the upper echelons of U.S. military and intelligence organizations in 1963.
Northwoods can be seen as a template for Kennedy’s assassination. On November 22 someone staged a spectacular attack on a U.S. target in Dallas, and CIA assets, funded by a secret operation codenamed AMSPELL, immediately sought to blame the crime on Cuba. Fifty eight years later, portions of the Northwoods and AMSPELL files are still secret. Will they be made public?
2) Did the CIA declassify the files of five undercover operations officers who knew the biography, travels, politics and personal life of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald before Kennedy was killed?
Birch O’Neal was the senior counterintelligence officer in Langley who opened the Agency’s first file on Oswald, the ex-Marine defector, in November 1959.
J. Walton Moore was the CIA’s man in Dallas who kept track of Oswald upon his return to the United State in 1962, by introducing him to geologist George de Mohrenschildt, an Agency asset. (De Mohrenschildt later wrote a book saying Oswald did not kill the president);
David Phillips was a propaganda specialist who observed Oswald’s contacts with Cuban and Soviet diplomats in Mexico City seven weeks before JFK was killed. Under oath Phillips had trouble keeping his Oswald stories straight, offering contradictory accounts of what he knew and when he knew it.
George Joannides was the Miami-based undercover officer whose paid assets generated propaganda about Oswald before and after JFK’s assassination was killed. His files are shrouded in secrecy, thanks to Brett Kavanaugh.
The CIA concealed or obfuscated the identities and actions of all five when questioned by assassination investigators. The Agency is still withholding dozens of pages of material about them. Full access to their files will illuminate the nature of the CIA’s covert interest in Oswald before Kennedy was killed.
3) Did the CIA come clean on the AMSPELL propaganda operation involving Oswald?
AMSPELL was the code name for the CIA front group, run by Joannides in 1963, that publicized Oswald’s pro-Castro activities before and after Kennedy was killed. The AMSPELL program had the distinction of generating the very first JFK conspiracy theory to reach public print, blaming the crime, a la Northwoods, on the Cuban government. Fifteen years later, Joannnides obstructed Congress’s JFK investigation by not disclosing the contacts between his AMSPELL agents and Oswald.
Why wouldn’t a CIA officer disclose contacts between his agents and an accused presidential assassin? Good question. I spent 16 years in federal court seeking Joannides’s files, and agency officials never once offered an explanation of his actions. To disclose details of his operations in 1963 or 1978, I was told, would endanger U.S. national security in the 21st century. In this case I believe the CIA’s statements. To fully disclose around JFK issues would harm the CIA, and thus harm U.S. national security. That’s the most plausible explanation of the Agency’s actions.
If the Agency is serious about complying with the JFK Records Act, it will release all of Joannides’s personnel file, including three key records:
–a top-secret security clearance Joannides received in June 1963 shortly before the Oswald-AMSPELL contacts;
–a September 1978 job evaluation covering the period when he stonewalled JFK investigators;
–a March 1981 memo approving Joannides for a CIA medal.
The redactions in the 87- page AMSPELL file from 1964 contain nothing of relevant to the assassination, according to the Washington Decoded. If so, there should be no problem releasing the file in its entirety. In any case, full disclosure of this file will illuminate what the CIA has not fully disclosed. The Agency has produced AMSPELL reports from 162 and 1964. It has yet to produce Joannides’s reporting on AMSPELL propaganda activities in November 1963.
4) Did the CIA disclose fully about illicit operations in Miami and New Orleans in 1963?
The CIA’s charter prohibits operations on U.S. soil. This rule was observed mostly in the breach in the early 1960s The Agency is withholding CIA testimony related to covert operations in New Orleans. An internal history of the Miami station is heavily redacted. Full disclosure of these documents will illuminate the nature of CIA operations around Oswald in 1963.
5) Did the CIA disclose fully around the Watergate connection to JFK’s assassination?
I’m not talking about the unproven conspiracy theories that the Watergate burglars were involved in Kennedy’s assassination. I’m talking about the CIA’s file on Howard Hunt, specifically the JFK records that have been withdrawn from the files of an internal CIA investigation of the chief Watergate burglar.
I’m also talking about a top secret assignment that Hunt was cleared into in October 1970 after his “retirement” from the CIA. The document is called “Request for Utilization of Hunt in a Project.” The nature of that project is classified 51 years later. What’s so sensitive? The operations may have related to the CIA’s interest in Robert Maheu, a private detective who assisted in the conspiracy to assassinate Fidel Castro. In 1971 Maheu told syndicated columnist Jack Anderson that the Castro plots led directly to JFK’s assassination.
The Mary Ferrell Foundation has identified many more relevant JFK documents that contain redactions but the above records should suffice as a measure of CIA intentions . If CIA director William Burns and his subordinates are serious about obeying the law concering JFK’s assassination, these documents will be declassified this week. If Agency isn’t serious about obeying the law, they won’t be.