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JFK Most Wanted: Three Key CIA Files That Need to Be Declassified

After I read Robert Reynold’s piece in Washington Decoded, I wrote him a note in our JFK researchers list serve.

Welcome Robert. This is about the only venue on the planet where people of such diverse views on JFK actually communicate and attempt to understand each other.  

I did not write “pro and anti-conspiracy” people because the language of conspiracy–the language of law–is not always the most useful way to talk about this subject. I’m not a lawyer. I only know the basics of conspiracy law. I’m not a prosecutor seeking to make a conspiracy case. And I’m not a conspiracy theorist. So let’s leave the conspiracies and the theories out of the discussion, and focus on the facts. 

You got a couple of them wrong in your Washington Decoded piece, and I’d like to point them out since they were adduced in an argument critical of me. For example, you write, “It bears pointing out that all of these withheld-in-full records have been examined by at least three sets of investigators: the Warren Commission in 1964, the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s, and most recently, the ARRB.” 

Alas, that is not an accurate statement. 

Among the withheld in full material are six transcripts of William Manchester’s interviews with Jackie and Robert Kennedy. These were not seen by any of the three investigations. In addition, there is a great deal of material about the CIA propaganda operation known as AMSPELL that the Warren Commission, HSCA, and ARRB were denied access to. The ARRB obtained only 15 pages of George Joannides’ personnel file, which contains 44 documents from 1963-64 and 1978 that are withheld in full. According to former ARRB chair Judge John Tunheim, those records qualify as JFK records under law, and should be reviewed and released immediately.

So, I think it would be more accurate to something like, “a handful of the most important documents have never been seen by anybody outside of the Kennedy family and several dozen JFK documents, long sought by researchers, have never been seen by anyone outside of the Agency.”

AMSPELL and Oswald

Now let us turn to the redacted AMSPELL file.

Oswald in NO
Lee Oswald came to the attention of CIA-funded anti-Castro exiles in New Orleans in the summer of 1963.

My assertion in my (paywalled) Miami Herald pieces that the file might “shed light on the CIA cover-up that followed JFK’s murder,” you say, “makes no sense.” You note, correctly, that the withheld pages are part of a 15-page attachment listing  political prisoners in Cuban jails. You assert “it defies credulity to see how these pages may shed light on the CIA cover-up [sic] that followed JFK’s murder.”

Let me try to disabuse you of your credulity. Your first mistake is to only consider the withheld evidence that supports your case. Yes, most of the withheld material concerns Cuban prisoners and has no relevance to the JFK story. Did you overlook the multiple redactions of the identity of AMSPELL members and CIA reporting officers on pp. 3, 5, 6, 7, 10 and passim? There might be JFK relevant information here (for example, about DRE members Carlos Bringuier and Carlos Quiroga who figure in the JFK story). Or there may be nothing. I don’t know, and I don’t make many assumptions about documents I can’t see.

 The very fact that any redactions remain, 58 years after the fact and four years after the deadline set by the JFK Records Act, is revealing. It confirms the extraordinary sensitivity of the AMSPELL file, and yes, it sheds light on the CIA cover-up that followed JFK’s murder. Let me explain. 

 The AMSPELL files, now held by the CIA, document the Agency’s relationship with the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil (DRE) from 1960 to 1966, mainly in monthly progress reports filed by the case officers who handled the group, and also in cables referencing AMSPELL activities. These reports described what the group did with the CIA’s funds, its effectiveness in achieving Agency goals, and its plans for the future.    

We have such reports from July through November 1962, written by Ross Crozier, a contract agent who worked for senior Cuba operations officer David Phillips who had recruited the Directorate’s leaders off the University of Havana campus. These reports are lengthy, detailed documents running in excess of thirty pages, itemizing activities and expenditures and assessing personalities and performance.        

Undercover officer George Joannides took over handling of the group in December 1962. There are no AMSPELL monthly progress reports in the JFK Collection for the next 17 months [emphasis added], until May 1964 when we have the redacted document you reference. Thanks to the redactions, we still don’t know who took over handling of the DRE/AMSPELL program after Joannides, but we do know something we didn’t know before: that case officers filed monthly progress reports. The CIA told the ARRB in 1998 the AMSPELL reporting stopped in early 1963. That was a lie. 

Trinchera November 2 1963
DRE publication Trinchera, dated November 24, 1963

All of which begs the question:  Where is the AMSPELL monthly progress report for November 1963?  No component program of the CIA was as deeply involved in the events of leading up to and after Kennedy’s assassination as AMSPELL. What did Joannides make of Oswald’s contacts with his agents among the Cuban students? He was certainly paying attention to the group at the time.

In October 1963, Joannides went to Langley to discuss the Directorate’s request for support of armed action in Cuba. Ted Shackley wrote a memo blasting the DRE leaders as immature and arrogant; Dick Helms decided to cut off funding for their military activities; and Joannides went to Miami to give the news to DRE leader Luis Fernandez Rocha (a paid CIA agent, codename AMHINT-53). 

Three days later, Kennedy was killed. Oswald was arrested and the DRE leaders went public with allegations that Oswald had tried to infiltrate their New Orleans delegation in August 1963. DRE spokesman Jose Antonio Lanzua (paid with AMSPELL funds) spoke to a dozen reporters from his press list (developed with CIA help) about Oswald’s connections to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, resulting in headlines across the country about “the Pro-Castro Gunman.” Oswald and Castro, the group declared in publication subsidized by the CIA, were “The Presumed Assassins.” The AMSPELL leaders were then scheduled to make an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee to talk about Oswald’s communist ways. Then their appearance was canceled and they left the country, with Joannides’ permission.

It was Joannides’ job to report on the group’s activities. So, it is fair to ask, what did he report about this curious flurry of activity around the events in Dallas?

False CIA Statements

Joannides died in 1991 so he can’t answer. The CIA won’t answer the question, or rather, the Agency’s answers have been consistently deceptive. In 1998, Barry Harrelson of the CIA told the ARRB in a memo that the Agency didn’t know who handled the DRE in 1963; that the agency ended its relationship with the group in 1963; and that’s why there’s no report for November 1963.

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)

That statement was misleading in three ways. The CIA did know who ran the group; it was Joannides. The CIA did have a relationship with the DRE in 1963, which I confirmed by multiple interviews with DRE leaders. And, we now know, the AMSPELL reporting did not end, because now we have the 1964-66 AMSPELL file, albeit in redacted form. It took 23 years for the American public to learn how the CIA deceived the ARRB.

Harrelson’s promiscuously false memo marked the third time in six decades the CIA had misled JFK investigators on the subject of the DRE and Oswald in 1963. The CIA’s funding of Oswald’s antagonists in the AMSPELL program was not disclosed to the Warren Commission, not even off the record. Joannides’ handling of the group in 1963 was not disclosed to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, thanks to Joannides’ obstruction of Congress, a felony. And records related to his actions are still withheld in full or unaccounted for. 

This is why I have trouble with the official theory of a lone gunman. If it was really so obvious that Oswald was a lone nut who killed JFK for no reason, would we see this pattern of deception over decades? Why wouldn’t Joannides (or his bosses) have just said, at some point, “Hey, Oswald tangled with our boys in New Orleans but we had no idea he was going to shoot the president?” What explains this unbroken record of deceit around the Oswald-AMSPELL contacts? I don’t know. I’m waiting for full disclosure before I jump to conclusions. Maybe you have an explanation. 

Crux of the Argument

You say, in conclusion, “Morley essentially argues that proof of the CIA’s complicity in the assassination resides in the mere fact that some CIA records gathered under the JFK Act are still redacted.” 

I think you’ve distorted my argument, or maybe I haven’t made myself clear enough. 

I have never said, written or believed that I have “proof” of CIA’s complicity. I have evidence, not proof. And my argument is not based solely on the fact that some JFK documents are redacted today. It is based on the facts:

–that a small group in the Counterintelligence Staff monitored Oswald’s movements constantly from 1959 to November 1963;

–that Dr. Robert McClelland, one of the doctors who tried to save JFK’s life, said (in this very sober interview) the president’s head wound was caused by a shot from the front;

–that the CIA lied to the FBI on November 22, 1963, saying it had only 5 documents on Oswald (they had at least 42);

–that Dick Helms lied to the Warren Commission in 1964 when he said the CIA had only “minimal” information about Oswald;

–that Helms’s man in Miami, Joannides, was called out of retirement in 1978 to obstruct the HSCA investigation;

–that the Agency issued a misleading statements about Joannides to the ARRB in 1998;

–that the CIA continues to withhold key JFK documents, including those about Joannides’ sources, methods, and cover, in 2022.

To me, the most plausible explanation for this bizarre and suspicious secrecy is that there are CIA “sources and methods”–perhaps an operation–concerning Lee Harvey Oswald that has to be hidden. I’ve heard the argument that the CIA is merely hiding embarrassment or incompetence. I guess that is possible. But I see nothing in the record–no testimony or document–that corroborates the claim of embarrassment or incompetence. 

Rather, the preponderance of evidence indicates what retired CIA officer Jane Roman told me and John Newman in 1993: Someone high in CIA had a keen interest in Oswald held on a need to know basis before Kennedy was killed.

Who was it? All I can say with confidence is that it was someone higher in the food chain than Joannides. Joannides was not a co-conspirator. He looks more like an accessory after the fact. 

Three Key CIA Documents

So, you ask, will the outstanding documents change our understanding of JFK’s assassination?  I think so. I can point to three withheld documents, known to exist, that will shed light on CIA operational activities related to Oswald. They are: 

–A Special Intelligence security clearance that Joannides received in the summer of 1963 while he was handling the AMSPELL program.  Special Intelligence means wiretap material, the most sensitive sort of CIA operation. If Joannides was cleared for work in Mexico City or on the FPCC, for example, that would be significant.

–A performance evaluation of Joannides from September 1978 when he was stonewalling the HSCA. What did the CIA say about Joannides’ handling of the JFK investigators? 

— A five-page memo on a medal that Joannides received in 1981 after stonewalling the HSCA. Was Joannides rewarded for deceiving Congress about JFK matters?

There are other key documents outstanding. David Kaiser cites the 201 file of Eladio Del Valle. Malcolm Blunt cites an Office of Security study of defectors. The point is that we are a long way from full JFK disclosure despite the clear intent of Congress and the language of the law. 

Toward Full JFK Disclosure

Rather than have a tedious debate about “conspiracy,” why don’t we do something productive?

Maybe Max [Holland] can put you in touch with David Robarge [the CIA’s chief historian]. The Center for the Study of Intelligence could serve their mission and the public interest by fast tracking the documents cited above (and any others serious JFK scholars deem potentially significant) and get them, complete and unexpurgated, into the JFK collection in time for President Biden’s Dec. 15, 2022, deadline for full disclosure. 

If you are correct in your belief that my understanding of these records is faulty, then full disclosure will tend to vindicate you and discredit me. I have no problem with that prospect. I look forward to the day.

All in all, your criticism has clarified my thinking, or rather made me express my points more clearly. So thanks and welcome the fray. I’ll shut up now. 

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