As confirmation hearings for John Brennan as the new director of the CIA get underway this week, the Senate and the public face basic issues of trust and transparency. How does the director of a necessarily secretive multi-billion-dollar agency retain public trust and maintain accountability within the democratically elected government?
One way is to come clean on the JFK story, especially the role of top CIA officials in the JFK story. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is an important symbolic test of the CIA’s credibility. A poll taken in 2003 found 34 percent of respondents held the agency responsible for JFK’s death.
There’s no “smoking gun” proof of a JFK conspiracy, but there is a pattern of suspicious activity on the part of some senior CIA operatives that has never been clarified. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr, recently said in Dallas, even his father Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy privately feared “rogue CIA” operatives were involved in his brother’s assassination.
In the face of such widespread doubts, the CIA’s best option in 2013 — its only politically realistic option — is to be transparent, especially about one of Brennan’s most controversial predecessors, the late Richard Helms, the director of the CIA from 1967 to 1973.
As I noted last month in the Huffington Post, the next director of the CIA is going to face a season of cynicism and suspicion later this year. On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the agency is still withholding from public view more than 1,100 files related to JFK’s death, most of them dating from Helms’s tenure as deputy director in 1963.
CIA officials will no doubt tell Brennan what they have stated publicly: that the 1,100 files are “not believed relevant” to the JFK assassination story.
That is not accurate. These files are relevant. They were collected internally by agency officials in the 1970s as they prepared for JFK investigations. At that time, the agency itself determined that the records were related to JFK’s assassination. Now CIA officials have told the National Archives and JFK scholars that they do not have the “time or resources” to review and release these JFK files.
The National Archives data base and other sources identify the secret CIA files that are directly relevant to the JFK assassination story.
These are the files of Agency officers who who reported to Helms, the deputy CIA director in 1963, and his colleague, James Angleton, the chief of counterintelligence.
Both men figured prominently in the intelligence failure that culminated in JFK’s death on November 22, 1963. Angleton’s office had monitored accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald closely from 1959 to 1963 and failed to identify him as a threat. Four senior officers reporting to Helms were informed of Oswald’s travels and Cuban contacts six weeks before JFK was killed. None expressed security concerns about the accused assassin.
The Top 5 JFK files John Brennan should release are these:
1) Howard Hunt’s operational files. Notorious as the leader of the Watergate burglars, Hunt served at Helms’s behest as chief of the CIA’s Domestic Contacts Division in 1963. During the Watergate affair, Hunt all but blackmailed Helms by threatening to talk in court about “numerous Illegal conspiracies” in which he had participated. Late in life Hunt made cryptic remarks about a possible CIA plot to kill JFK in 1963 that he called “the Big Event.”
The CIA retains six files containing 332 pages of material on Hunt, who died in 2007.
David Atlee Phillips’s operational files. Phillips was a protege of Helms and colleague of Hunt’s, known for the ruthless cleverness of his psychological warfare operations. Working undercover in Mexico City in 1963, Phillips was involved in the pre-assassination surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald. There was a credible report he was seen in Oswald’s company. In 1998, the CIA acknowledged that Phillips worked with ultra-right-wing Chilean military officers responsible for a political assassination in October 1970. He later founded the Association of Former Intelligence Officers to defend the agency’s reputation.
The CIA retains four files containing 606 pages of material on Phillips, who died in 1987.
3) Eladio del Valle’s personality file: Eladio del Valle was a drug smuggler and gunman who worked for Havana organized crime boss Santos Trafficante in the early 1960s. He also worked with CIA officials reporting to Helms in the covert war on Cuba. He was an associate of John Martino, a gambling security expert who acknowledged advanced knowledge of a plan to shoot and kill Kennedy in Dallas. The Cuban intelligence service later conducted an investigation of JFK’s assassination and concluded that del Valle was involved. Del Valle was murdered in Miami in 1967. Fabian Escalante, retired chief of the Cuban counterintelligence service, told me “We are certain del Valle was involved somehow.”
When historian David Kaiser, author of The Road to Dallas, asked the CIA for the del Valle file, he was not allowed to see any of it.
4) George Joannides’s medal memo. In 1981 a retired undercover officer George Joannides received the Agency’s Career Intelligence Medal in part for his operations in 1963. At the time, of JFK’s death, Joannides served as chief of psychological warfare operations in Miami. Working with Phillips, he handled contacts with the Cuban Student Directorate, an anti-Castro exile group whose members tangled with Oswald in the summer of 1963. Fifteen years later, Joannides hid what he knew about Oswald’s pro-Castro antics in 1963 from the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
Did the CIA honor Joannides for running an undercover psy-war operation involving Oswald and concealing it from congressional investigators? A five-page memo written in March 1981 explains why Joannides was given the Career Intelligence Medal. Access to the memo is now “denied in full” — for reasons of national security. Joannides died in 1990.
5) Files of Birch D. O’Neal. A former CIA station chief in Guatemala, O’Neal ran the counterintelligence office that kept the closest track of Lee Harvey Oswald from 1959 to 1963. As chief of the Special Investigations Group, O’Neal reported to counterintelligence chief Angleton. If there was a CIA effort to manipulate Oswald, O’Neal likely knew of it. The CIA retains three files on O’Neal’s operations, containing 222 pages of material.