Saturday, 26 June 2021 20:00

Morley v. CIA

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Recognizing the significant contributions to JFK research made by mainstream journalist Jefferson Morley, Jim DiEugenio reviews his recent e-book, Morley v. CIA: My Unfinished JFK Investigation, and traces the history of George Joannides involvement with the CIA and the DRE dating back to the time of the JFK assassination and beyond.

Jefferson Morley’s e-book Morley v. CIA is a brief tome, but if one is attuned to the scenario and the political times, it’s a work that is powerful in its overtones. On the surface, it tells the story of a journalist at the Washington Post who got interested in the JFK case. He decided to pursue a certain angle about Oswald’s activities in New Orleans with a certain Cuban exile group. He then filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The end result of that application had two long term results that were both negative for Morley and for the cause of open government and disclosure. They are really the heart of this story. But before we get to them, let us lay in some background.

Morley was one of the very few MSM reporters who showed a real interest in the John Kennedy assassination. From his outpost at the Washington Post, he became acquainted with John Newman. He and Newman cooperated on what was one of the most fascinating and important discoveries in the early days of the Assassination Records Review Board. This was the interview those men did with CIA official Jane Roman in the fall of 1994. Morley had discovered that Roman had handled cables and communications about Oswald in the weeks before Kennedy’s assassination. Yet she had signed a communication to Mexico City saying that the latest information CIA had on Oswald was a State Department report from May of 1962. This was a key discovery in trying to comprehend what was going on in Mexico City, which the Warren Commission never came close to understanding. (For a fuller version of that incident click here)

Morley actually got the Post to publish a few stories on the JFK case which were not cheerleading boilerplate for the Commission or slams against the critical community. This was a significant achievement. He has talked about the rather difficult process he had to go through to get the stories published. At times, it was almost a Catch 22 situation. His editors would ask him what theory he was trying to push. He would reply that he was not pushing any theory. They would then ask: “Well why do you want to run the story then?” Consider: Morley was a veteran reporter who had been with The New Republic and The Nation for a number of years prior to the Post. The fact he had to run this gauntlet shows how radioactive this issue was thirty years after Kennedy’s assassination.

As he began to go through some of the declassified CIA documents, the reporter noted that, contrary to what the Agency had maintained for decades, they had a keen and continuing interest in Oswald. (Morley, p. 9). He was particularly struck by the fact that the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil—the DRE—had participated in a broadcast debate with Oswald. Afterwards, they had called for an inquiry into his group: the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. This was three months before the assassination. He was surprised when he discovered that not only did the CIA have a file on the DRE, they had three boxes of materials on that group. After going through the material, he concluded that the DRE was in reality a CIA front. (Morley, p. 10) They were getting a princely sum of $51,000/month to operate both domestically and abroad—the equivalent of nearly a half million today. (Morley, p. 11)

He then went about tracking down some of the surviving DRE members. They all referred to a man named “Howard” as their contact with the CIA in 1963. In the boxes, there were lengthy monthly reports out of the Miami station on the DRE, yet these did not appear to exist in 1963. (Morley, p. 10) In 1998, the Review Board released a document which stated the case officer for the DRE in 1963 was not Howard Hunt, but George Joannides. (p. 14) The plot thickened when Morley learned that, in 1978, while he was recovering from a heart operation, Joannides was recruited by Scott Breckinridge. Breckinridge was the chief liaison for the CIA with the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Unfortunately, when Morley unearthed all of this, he also found out that Joannides had passed on in March of 1991. The Post obituary had described him as a Defense Department attorney. (Morley, p. 15)

Once he had this information in hand, the reporter contacted Robert Blakey, the Chief Counsel for the HSCA during its last two years of operation. He asked him if he knew what Joannides was doing in 1963. Blakey said he was not doing anything. He had a deal with the Agency that no one operative in 1963 would be working with the committee. In other words, the Chief Counsel had been snookered. (Morley, p. 15)

Morley thought, quite naturally, that this all added up to an interesting story that the Post should run. Bob Woodward agreed. But the investigative reporting chief ended up vetoing the story. The author’s summary of this episode is notable:

They just didn’t want to deal with a JFK assassination story, which amounted to prudent careerism manifested by a difference in news judgment. Nobody had ever gotten ahead in Washington by challenging the CIA’s account of JFK’s assassination…The truth was, I had a good story that didn’t serve the newsroom’s collective agenda. (Morley, p. 18)

It then got worse. The Post, in the person of managing editor Steve Coll, denied his suggestion to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get more documents on Joannides. Therefore, Morley had to publish the story with the Miami New Times, an alternative weekly.

Though he switched over to the online version of the Post, he did not lose interest in Joannides. Morley ended up joining forces with the very experienced Washington FOIA attorney Jim Lesar. Lesar agreed to take the case, because the precedent in the field was that if the CIA lost, the Agency would have to pay his fees. (Morley, p. 19)

Prior to working with Breckinridge, since he spoke fluent Greek and French, Joannides had worked as an undercover agent at the Athens station. The author makes clear that Joannides was an operations man, not a desk jockey. (Morley, p. 21) But in 1962, he was sent to the Miami station. At around this time, Deputy Director Richard Helms decided to redo the Agency contract with the DRE. Whoever became their case officer would have full access to Helms. (p. 22) In some documents the CIA gave up, Morley discovered that Joannides took out a second home in New Orleans in 1964, while the Commission was holding hearings there. This may have been important, because Helms never disclosed that the DRE had a CIA code name, AMPSELL, to the Warren Commission. This was the case even though Helms was the key officer controlling CIA relations with that body.

Lesar filed for the missing monthly reports and the reasons why Joannides was chosen as the HSCA liaison. (p. 26) Dan Hardway became co-counsel. Hardway had worked for the HSCA and had direct contact with Joannides. Recall, when Fletcher Prouty first went to the HSCA for a pre-interview, he saw Joannides there. He immediately realized what had happened. So, he chose to cooperate in only a perfunctory manner.

In interviews this reviewer did with Hardway, and based on a speech Hardway’s partner Eddie Lopez gave in Chicago in 1993, Prouty was absolutely correct. Up until Joannides coming in, Danny and Ed worked out of the CIA offices in Langley. It was a relatively cooperative and informal arrangement. And the two made good progress on their studies of the CIA and Oswald, and the Oswald in Mexico City mystery. This changed under Joannides. As Lopez said in Chicago, now they were shifted out of Langley to offices at the HSCA headquarters. A huge safe was moved into the office. Ed and Dan had to file formal written requests that were now courier-delivered to a secretary. They then had to sign in and out and also for each batch of documents. They also had to hand in their notes. But further, according to Hardway, they now did not get completely unredacted documents or all the documents under request. This violated the agreement that the HSCA had made with CIA. In other words, Joannides acted as a hatchet man.

Judge Richard Leon oversaw Morley’s case at the district level. To put it mildly, he did not look upon it with sympathetic eyes. And here, in addition to the struggle at the Post, comes a second sub theme to the book. That is, how the GOP has stacked the judiciary through The Federalist Society. Leon was appointed to the court by George W. Bush and, according to the late Robert Parry, that may have been an appreciative familial gesture. (Click here for details)

Leon consistently ruled against Morley and Lesar, but, on appeal, Lesar got about 300 pages of newly declassified material. It should be revealed here that, in his interview with Oliver Stone for the director’s upcoming JFK documentary, ARRB chair John Tunheim stated that he was also deceived by the CIA about Joannides. The Agency told the Board that all they had on the former operator was his personnel file. That turned out to be, at the very least, an exaggeration. Tunheim felt that he also had been snookered. For example, Joannides told Blakey that the CIA cut off contact with the DRE in April of 1963. Not accurate. The CIA funding of the DRE went on all the way until late 1966. (Morley, p. 41)

After the 300 pages—which declassified an award that included his domestic actions, which Morley thinks may have been his work with the DRE—Leon attempted to end the case. This was with about 100 documents still outstanding. (Morley, pp. 43–45). This time, the appeals court—with Brett Kavanaugh on it—agreed with Leon.

This led to the second part of the suit, which was an attempt to have the CIA compensate Lesar for the work he had done on the filings, hearings, and other parts of the case. Here, Brett Kavanaugh proved crucial. Prior to the Morley case, there had been a four-part test over the issue of compensation. (Morley, p. 47) If the plaintiff prevailed, those four parts came into play. Clearly, Morley had prevailed, since he got hundreds of pages out which had been secret. These benefited the public, since he wrote many articles about it. Further, the JFK case was and is an issue of substantial interest.

In the end, Kavanaugh reversed his initial vote on the fees. In 2013, he agreed with Lesar. In 2018, he did not. The main issue that changed was that he was now on the verge of attaining his life’s ambition as a member of the Federalist Society. (Morley, p. 55) As the author writes, Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court was sealed with a “decision that can only be described as arbitrary, self-serving, and detrimental to the spirt of the Freedom of Information Act.” (Ibid)

And that statement is not hyperbole and it is not sour grapes either. The author includes Kavanaugh’s decision along with Karen Henderson’s in his appendix to the book. Henderson dissented and her opinion pretty much takes apart Kavanaugh’s in every way. And make no mistake, this is an important issue, for the simple reason that it is difficult for a private individual to take on the FBI or CIA on his own. And the people who file these cases are usually not those of extreme wealth (e.g. the late Harold Weisberg). This is what keeps the scales a bit more even and what helps secure an open government. But once one gets a judge like Leon, who defers to the judgment of the CIA, and one like Kavanaugh, who saw his future beckoning, past precedents were forgotten. Henderson’s dissent is very much worth reading.

Morley has written an unusual book. I don’t recall one like it dealing with the JFK case. It seems to me more than just a profile of a FOIA lawsuit. It tells us about problems with not just the JFK case, but through that with the press and our court system. Both of which weighed in on the side of secrecy.

Joannides must be smiling.

Last modified on Sunday, 27 June 2021 05:11
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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